Homeless in Thailand

I doubt there are any foreigners who come to Thailand with the expectation of ending up homeless and searching for food in bins. Unfortunately, this is the way things turn out for a significant number of people who come here. An article in yesterday’s Bangkok Post (Homeless Foreigners on the Rise) gave an optimistic estimate of 400 homeless foreigners in Thailand – I’d be very surprised if the number wasn’t significantly higher than this.

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My Experiences of Homelessness

I’ve never been homeless in Thailand, but I did live on the streets of London for a brief period of my life. This occurred due to an alcohol-related mental breakdown in my mid-twenties. I had been a bit depressed in the run-up to this, but I had also plenty of good stuff going on in my life such being accepted at university. I can’t blame my homelessness on any one event – at the time it just felt like everything just started to fall apart. I wanted to die, but I no longer had the energy to do anything with this yearning, so I just lived on the streets. I felt alone and afraid, and my thinking became so mixed up that it was impossible for me to figure out a solution. Luckily there were other people there to help me get back on my feet.

I moved to Thailand in 2001 and for my first five years living here I was caught up in a downward spiral driven by addiction to alcohol. I’d arrived from Saudi Arabia (where I worked as a nurse) with a healthy bank account and no real plans. I honestly believed that living in this beautiful country would give me a new start in life. Like lots of others before me, I mistakenly believed that my problems were due to my surroundings, so living in an exotic place like Thailand would fix me. It didn’t. My life went into free-fall, and I’d almost certainly be dead now if it wasn’t for the help from Thai people and Thamrkabok Temple in 2006. I could easily have been one of the homeless foreigners in Thailand.

How Do Foreigners End Up Homeless in Thailand?

A common sentiment among expats in Thailand (at least if the online forums are representative) is that homeless foreigners are getting what they deserve – or as they say here ‘สมน้ำหน้า/ som nam naa’. They are just ‘weak minded’ people who have been gullible enough to allow a Thai partner to cheat them out of all their money or they are drunks who shouldn’t have been allowed to enter Thailand in the first place. Plenty of expats can’t even bare to make eye contact with other foreigners, so it is hardly surprising they have little sympathy for these ‘losers’. Of course, the reality is that things are nowhere near as black and white as these people would suggest. Nobody comes to Thailand with the intention of ending up homeless, and these guys will have undoubtedly appeared perfectly sane and sober when they arrived.

It is tempting to believe that homelessness and addiction only happens to inferior humans. This provides a false sense of security as well as smugness. The reality is that mental illness can strike anyone and when it does that person can lose everything. As well as experiencing homelessness first-hand, I’ve also done some volunteer work in homeless shelters. Some of these guys were successful – it just took a couple of things to go wrong and their life went out of control. I remember one old fella who had been an Oxford University professor, but he was unable to keep it together after he lost his wife.

Moving to Thailand Increases the Risk of Mental Illness and Addiction

Leaving the normal routines of life in the west will increase the risk of mental illness and addiction. This is because we are away from the constraints on our behavior, and family and friends are not here to raise concerns about our deterioration. When we step off the plane, it can feel like the normal standards do not apply. The fact that we don’t understand the rules of Thai culture gives us the false impression that there are no rules. We now see nothing wrong with getting drunk during the middle of the day, and there is no pressure on us to hide our excesses. We are given the freedom to fall apart and those of us who have been struggling to keep things together for years will be happy to make the most of the opportunity.

What Should Be Done to Help Homeless Foreigners in Thailand

Homeless foreigners are human beings who are struggling in life. They should be treated with compassion and offered help. Foreign embassies and consulates should step in to provide safe accommodation and food until these people can be helped back on their feet or repatriated to their home country– they should definitely not end up in jail waiting for deportation. I’ve found the people of Thailand to be very kind-hearted, and there are local temples like Thamrkabok where addicts can seek sanctuary and help.

Update: there is an interesting article written by Mong Palatino for the Global Voice dealing with the issues raised in this post – Homeless Foreigners on the Rise in Thailand

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17 thoughts on “Homeless in Thailand

  1. Great article……clear, concise writing with passion, sympathy and empathy. I enjoed reading this article very much. Thanks!

    1. Sarah and/or Paul…above. I too would like to involve myself. Few hours a week would be ideal for me, please, both, let me know. AB

  2. Very interesting article…sadly I have noticed many faceless ‘non-Thai’ people, mostly men, who demonstrate mental health or other addiction symptoms. Go to any pseudo-British/American drinking hole, at almost anytime of the day, and you will easily spot them. I wonder sometimes if they are ‘happy-go-lucky’ tourists, doing the Bangkok thing, or the hardened alcohol imbibers…it is getting easier to separate them.

    1. Hi ABB, I think it is easy for high-functioning alcoholics to lose control in Thailand. Like you say, they can hide their habitual drunkenness under the guise of ‘happy-go-lucky’ tourist. There is a belief that people on holiday have earned the right to party hard – the problem is that some of them will have been going wild every day for years.

  3. I can honestly say I’ve not met any homeless foreigners in Thailand – yet. I did see one guy sitting in front of a Robinson Center in our small town – he was selling some of his CD collection. I guess he could have been without a home at that point. What better place to come to be homeless though?

    I wrote an article about Hawaii’s homeless on one of my sites. Apparently they are considering buying each homeless person a ticket back to the mainland. Now what would prevent them from coming right back over? lol. So, same thing with homeless living in Thailand – maybe they just come right back over.

    I wonder if the homeless expat community is larger in Phnom Penh, or Bangkok. Or Angeles City – Philippines.

    Anyway, excellent article Paul. I hope people also read your “DEAD DRUNK” book at Amazon – an awesome read!
    Vern L recently posted..Is Pot Legal in Hawaii?

    1. Hi Vern, I’d imagine in some ways it is safer to be homeless in Thailand than back in the big cities of the west. I remember in the nineties it was considered safer to sleep on the streets because there could be so much violence and bullying in the homeless shelters – hopefully things have improved now. I think the worry with many of the homeless in Thailand is that they may be having a mental breakdown and there is not the same safety net to offer them protection.

  4. Hi,
    I have reasons for wanting a new undocumented life to escape harassment in my own country because I am intersex (XXY). I don’t like the stigma but it would be much better in Thailand. Though I have no criminal record I don’t have a degree and so can’t stay to work legally. What should I do for accommodation, or if I’m ever homeless?

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