Michael Batson

Travel Writer





To Live and Die in Southeast Asia - 25 September 2015

Death and taxes are the only things certain in life so they reckon. Well death anyway, some people never pay taxes. Where you choose to live invariably impacts on where you’re likely to die, even how. Some expats choose to live in Southeast Asia and some die there too. Expats who choose to live in Southeast Asia can be misfit, mercenary, missionary or parts thereof.I mean missionary in a broader sense. Not merely proselytisers, like Mormons on bikes in Phnom Penh, but educationalists, or those who may be working in skills development or community empowerment.

But for sure it’s a region with a reputation for more than a few expats dying before their time. There can be a variety of reasons for this. Things in Southeast Asia will kill you much faster than at home, sometimes rather innocuous things.

Big Doug was a Kiwi who’d lived in Cambodia for years, right from after the civil war back in the nineties, a long-timer. He used to run the Rebel Guesthouse in Koh Kong City. I’ve stayed there. His business card featured Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, a fitting moniker as it’s a bit like the Wild West. He was diabetic, a big man morbidly obese. One day a young kid on a motorbike clipped Doug’s shin with his foot peg, cutting him to the bone. The kid’s family stumped up with some compensation by way of a cash payment. The cops brokered the deal for a fee, perks of the job. Doug’s wound festered. He made regular trips to Thailand for medical care. The dressings were always clean but the tropical heat took its toll. When I revisited Cambodia I was told Doug was dead, blood poisoning. His wound had never healed.

One day I was sat next to a South African nurse on a bus to Batdambang. We spoke about the curtailed longevity of many expats living in Southeast Asia. As we headed across the sunbaked plains of north western Cambodia, I think we concluded that expats make a decision subconsciously or otherwise, to trade the lifestyle here for a shorter time on the planet. The onset of morbidities perfectly treatable back home might mean a serious reduction of quality of life here, even death. But that trading a potentially shorter life in one of the most wonderful parts of the world was infinitely preferable to living longer in a country you don’t like living as much, like back home. It was a trade-off you were prepared to accept, and many do.

A mate of mine who lives in Thailand said that he agrees one hundred percent with this. He’s lived in the City of Angels for ages and reckons that living in Bangkok takes at least 10 years off of your life. He’d come across a recent post on a blog written by an expat. The post went something like this. Since the writer moved to Thailand in 2002, he’d been lucky enough to enjoy the company of a few expats, some retired, some working for coin or volunteering.  But with a recent passing, he’d realised that every one of those friends were now dead. Suicide, cancer, motorbike accidents, one cause went unspecified, and diabetes. He was shocked that none of these people were older than 65 years, and several were in their 30's. In addition, two more friends ‘went mad’ and two more were now alcoholics.

My mate, a keen observer of life in Thailand and not just of expats, told me that Thailand does have a reputation for the early deaths of foreigners. Mainly these are in motor accidents. Thinking on he said he’d known a journalist who got run over by a truck, a friend who got wiped out on his motorbike, and others who expired relatively young with various ailments. Only last month a colleague's 11-year-old daughter fell to her death from the 20th floor of a condo.

There’s even a website rather morbidly dedicated to documenting the deaths of foreigners in Thailand. Suicides are common. Usually these are expat males caught up in some sordid financial wrangle with a local woman or more to the point, with her family. There’s a few expats been burned that way, some losing their life savings. The “lucky” ones may be able to re-enter the workforce and put some more money away before it’s too late. Some can wind up living on the streets in places like Pattaya. Others throw themselves from high rises, or drive headlong into a rubbish truck at high speed.

Many expats in places like Thailand adopt unhealthy lifestyles. There’s alcohol, poor diet and a lack of exercise. Often they don’t fill in their time constructively. It’s not uncommon to see Sexpats and potential Deadpats in bars before lunchtime often in the company of farm girls driven to cities by the lack of opportunities in rural areas. Of Cambodia with its long tropical nights, one long time expat, a Swiss paediatrician said, “you either become a readaholic or an alcoholic.”

There are motorbikes and drownings. You’d be amazed at the numbers of tourists and some expats who decide to jump into a pool and can’t swim. Of the former it seems a particular trait of late of Arabs and Russians. Then there are traffic fatalities. Southeast Asians die on the roads in their thousands every year, some foreigners too. Usually these are motorbikes but more usually scooters, the cheapest most accessible form of motorised transport. Drivers are reckless and if involved in an accident invariably flee the scene. This includes bus and train drivers, and even a couple of airline pilots on Koh Samui, except that they couldn’t fit out the cockpit windows.

The nurse was in Cambodia researching her PhD on human trafficking. She told me of the wonders of East Africa. She had left years before and now worked as a charge nurse at a major Singapore hospital. Surprisingly, she didn’t especially rate the standard of healthcare in Singapore. Places like Singapore are where those with money in places like Cambodia go to for medical treatment unobtainable at home.

There are limited pathology services in Cambodia for example. An expat doctor living in Phnom Penh told me the so-called laboratories are just fronts where the rich stash their cash. He told me of an Irishman who, against his medical advice, had a mole tested at such a place with fatal consequences. He’d been given a phoney report. By the time he got back to the doctor it was too late.

Pharmacies in Cambodia can be two-a-penny. Often they are clustered together. Self-medication is the rule. Cambodians tend to value volume, colour and variety as this is equated with efficacy. It’s the placebo effect for the impoverished. There’s no such thing as a controlled substance, which can lead to all sorts of related issues. Generally, use-by dates are irrelevant. Morphine and heroin are widely available and cheap.

Death by misadventure is a common occurrence in Cambodia. According to Khmer440, at least 48 expats have died in Cambodia in 2015 in just six months. Often they’ve burned their bridges back home and get into a tight spot with seemingly no way out, like the Finnish owner of Suomi Guesthouse on Street 172, found dead in his room with rent arrears.

Backpackers buy cheap heroin thinking it cocaine with often fatal consequences. Bodies can go undiscovered in hotels for several days, making a grisly find for staff. They ride bikes drunk with little protection, and have no road sense in a country with little formal road sense. Bodies sometimes turn up in Tonle Sap, hands bound with wire their throats cut. One Sexpat TEFLer with a reputation for not paying taxi girls was discovered dumped in a drain.

Don’t have a crash on Cambodian roads. Getting into a traffic accident anywhere is serious, but in Cambodia it's particularly so. Get insurance and be prepared. An ambulance, if there is one, may refuse seriously injured patients for fear that death may prohibit paying the bill. Healthcare is rudimentary. The best hospitals are all in Phnom Penh. The flagship is Calmette on Monivong Boulevard. Poorly paid staff trying to get by will inflate your bill.

Expat hospitals like SOS International exist across the region offering services at exorbitant rates no actual person can afford. One Australian I met was treated at one in Vietnam. Stricken with a condition in Nha Trang, he spent days in a public hospital room with a pregnant Vietnamese woman. He was so ill she had to help him to the toilet and he relied on her family cooking him food. In the end a Soviet-era ambulance drove him to Saigon where he woke in the SOS facility. The head doctor, a Dane, came in the next morning smoking a cigar. He asked which he wanted first, the good or the bad news. He was told the good news was they knew what was wrong with him, he had dengue fever. The bad news was the hospital charged US$1200 a night. “How many nights can you afford?” The Aussie replied “just one, this one,” So they moved him down the road to a guesthouse, where they treated him as an outpatient.

Rural Cambodia has health centres, basic primary care facilities usually located in villages. Larger provincial centres have referral hospitals, a mixed bag. It’s common in Cambodian hospitals for staff to double dip with “dual practice”, working in private facilities while still being paid to be at work at a public facility. Wages are low, facilities Spartan. Rich Cambodians go offshore, the poor make do. I’ve seen women post-caesarean lying on a bare bamboo slat frame in tropical heat. There’s no pillow or bed linen, and no food unless their family provides.

I once saw a dead man, a local, on a footpath in Phnom Penh. People gathered around and stared. I’m unsure how long he lay there before being collected to who knows where. An Irishman told me about an American who fell to his death from an apartment building. His body was in the street all morning because no one knew who he was or who to call. Eventually someone called the embassy.

A Frenchman killed himself, his Khmer wife distraught. The Frenchman was a heroin addict and dealer to boot. The police were closing in, and he hadn’t the money to buy them off, or to leave the country, besides there was his young family to consider. Another expat took his wife to inform the massively walled French Embassy. Security wouldn’t let her in. In the end security called her mother-in-law in France told her bluntly here son was dead and hung-up.

As someone wrote, if you are living in Cambodia and the like, if you’re not married or in a relationship or even if you are, probably best to have contacts, friends local or expat. People you can rely on to organise your affairs if required. If you suddenly expire you don’t want to rely on the tuk-tuk driver to call your mother.

Choosing to live in one of the most fascinating parts of the world has many benefits, and can be rewarding for all kinds of reasons. An English writer living in Chiang Rai explained Southeast Asia to me thus; “a paradox: what is good for the soul is bad for the bank account (usually) and vice versa.” He went on to say that it's not easy doing both because the system is set up so that people either have too much time, and too little money, or too much money with no time to enjoy it.

But often after several years living in Asia expats find returning home an impossible option, even if they may think they want to. They’re just too used to the lifestyle in their adopted land. As John Le Carre once said ‘Nothing ever bridged the gap between the man who went, and the man who stayed behind’.

There may be no money either and western life is expensive. You’re beautiful Khmer wife may not like it, and be lonely. They’ll also have to consider those links and networks left behind. Those friends and family who stayed will have “moved on”. Ultimately, they’ll be a certain disconnect. What once was will never be again.

By choosing to live out your days here you make certain choices about where you’ll finally wind up exiting. You should make sure you’re comfortable with your choice. Think it through, shoot it down to the bone.


#5 Guest 2020-07-05 23:54
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Short but very precise information? Many thanks
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#4 Guest 2020-06-17 11:23
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#3 Guest 2020-03-04 14:51
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#2 Guest 2015-09-26 13:09
This is an interesting but somewhat morbid-slanted article! I believe that the best choice is to LIVE - wherever that takes you. And remember George Orwell's famous quotation, 'The price of freedom is insecurity'. Would you prefer to live 44 years of passion and living on the edge (as Orwell did) or 100 years of blandness sucking excrement and being sensible?
PS: Orwell (Eric Blair) has been cited as being both mad and alcoholic.
#1 Guest 2015-09-25 21:45
Hi Mike, yes are bang on here as we have both talked about these very facts many times .Anyone who doesn't understand what you are saying either hasn't been there (Asia) or is one off these people that go and don't open there eyes and are not bothered to understand the culture of the place.We both know many expats who are lost souls.Even returning to your own country after living in Asia for along time, you still have a big pull dragging you back!!! Keep sane just go for a holiday, you will live longer , cheers mate.P.B.

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