Thailand or Philippines?

Thai people are universally know for their gentle and peaceful ways.

It’s nothing wildly original, but I always LOVED South-East Asia, ever since I first visited Vietnam in 1994. It was my first holidays beyond Europe or the Mediterranean sea. Vietnam had just opened to the world, but it was still a land out of time, that hadn’t changed much since 1975, with a lot going further back to French Indochine or to times immemorial. That trip was an initiation, almost a mystical experience, something I will never forget. From then on I was hooked. Just after I got my first real job, my first holidays were to Phuket, Thailand. I thought I had discovered paradise. Phuket was very different at the time, pre-tsunami, and it had EVERYTHING. Green jungle, white beaches, turquoise sea, still pristine coral reefs and colourful fishes under the water, glorious sun and occasional warm showers of rain above. The people were beautiful and incredibly nice. Their religion, though everywhere, was peaceful and tolerant. Everything was both more densely vibrant with life and more relaxed. And everything seemed so cheap and easy. I tried other places, like the Red Sea, Egypt – it wasn’t the same. No other place on Earth can compare. South-East Asia as a whole is the best part of the world, period. One day I would find a way to stay there for good, I thought every time I had to go back to grey and cold Europe.

When I quit my job for my one-year-round-the-world trip ten years ago, I knew most of my time would be spent in South-East Asia. I loved South America, though – but I preferred Bali, or Bangkok. So when I decided I was going to reclaim my life and get the hell out of Switzerland there was no question where I was planning to go.

At first I had thought of Phuket, Thailand, because that was the place I knew best, so I first settled here for a few months, to go through the whole administrative process before I could get my money. Thailand is probably the most economically developed country of the area (with the exception of Singapore), and the offer in terms of touristic infrastructures is already above and beyond the demand. So what could I be doing there? Opening a bar or a guesthouse was not an option – they have already way too many, everywhere, and building thousands more. So I had that idea of a craft brewery – everybody loves beer, tourists drink LOADS of beer, and a few of them would probably enjoy having some choices and diversity outside of industrial lager, I figured, and I thought that was something I could see myself doing – though I had actually never done it. It was a last minute idea, too late to actually learn the trade. Which would have been a major obstacle if… but more about this another day.

After three months in Phuket, one EXTREMELY unpleasant experience with the police (I will come back to this too), a few eye-opening discussions with Westerners who had settled here… I knew it was not going to be Thailand, a country that is definitely not what it pretends to be. Behind the amazing holidays postcard, the golden luxury of the temples, that all-pervasive elaborate glittery Thai aesthetics, there is a very dark and disturbing reality of general corruption, brutality, totalitarian propaganda (that insane cult of the King!), extreme conformism and deep dislike of “aliens”, who are only supposed to spend as much as possible then get out. You certainly can find some of this in all other South-East Asian countries, but I think Thailand is the most extreme case. They make it extremely clear that foreigners are NOT welcome anymore, unless they are 1. short-term tourists, 2. wealthy pensioners.

I knew the Philippines since I had once travelled to El Nido, Palawan for some unforgettably perfect holidays six years ago. It was like rediscovering Phuket the first time around – but better. The Bacuit Bay has to be one of the most amazing site on Earth, on par with Halong Bay in Vietnam. Philippines has so many islands, so many pristine beaches that it’s impossible to deface all of them with huge resorts, jetskis and mass tourism.  So it seemed like a logical choice. I embarked on a recon tour around Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

Diary of a Swiss guy in Port Barton, Palawan, Philippines

“Why would you want to stay in Palawan?!” said no-one ever.

Ok, so from now on this blog will be the chronicle of my attempt at settling in, and somehow find a way to survive, here in Port Barton, Palawan, Philippines. I have decided to write it in English, even though it’s not even my second language – it’s the language I will be speaking here and the lingua franca of the internet, wether we like it or not, so to hell with French.

A few preliminary words about me – I’m 47 (sigh), born and raised in Switzerland, where I’ve worked as a journalist for most of my life. By 2007, I had lost all my illusions about the realities of the job, particularly in the post 9/11 world where “journalist” has become a very dirty word indeed. Following a merger between the newspaper that employed me in Lausanne and its counterpart in Geneva, I got offered some incentive money if I agreed to quit so they wouldn’t have to fire me. Having no family, mortgage, obligations or any sense of responsibilities, I jumped on that opportunity, took the money and run, basically turning my old dream of travelling round the world into reality. I did just that for about a year, the best of my life up to that point, came back with a million memories, hepatitis (I’m fine now, thanks) and the realization that I would never again find work in my old field (who buys newspapers nowadays), and that traveling was everything.

After doing one Summer as a lifeguard at my local public swimming pool, I found an office job in a legal insurance company in Geneva. Though my colleagues were some of the best people I ever met, the job itself was nothing short of horrible – at times stressful, at times boring, always disheartening and repetitive, badly paid, with no possibilities of evolution of any kind. The ultimate dead end. I held on there for seven years, then decided this was not the life I wanted. I had to leave, or midlife crisis and depression would get me for real.

Switzerland sucks, mostly. Everything is insanely expensive. Rents (if you manage to find a flat, that is), mandatory insurances, taxes, transportations, even the most basic necessities like food and clothes are prohibitively priced  and getting higher every year, while the salaries are not. The Swiss – now a minority in their own country – have to compete (and the majority voted for it) with people in from all over the crumbling EU, for whom Swiss wages still seem attractive, comparatively – and it can be if you manage to actually live in one of the neighbour country and work in Switzerland, which is what hundreds of thousands are doing, pulling the salaries further down. The Swiss middle class is dying. For me and my colleagues, once we had paid the bills and filled the fridge, there was nothing left and only 25 more days till next check. But the Swiss shut up and consider themselves lucky because it’s actually worse everywhere else, or so we are told. But is it really?

It’s not all bad, though. Switzerland has a few comparative advantages. One is that, even if you’re dirt poor, you’re probably not going to end up dying of hunger and untreated diseases in the street. Admittedly it might even be better to be unemployed than to be working for minimum wage. The other one being that even if you’re a working poor within Switzerland, you’re quite well off with the same amount just about anywhere else in the world. Basically, being Swiss is great – as soon as you get get the hell out of Switzerland.

By Swiss law, if you are employed, a percentage of your salary goes to your retirement savings, called AVS. This is far from enough to live half decently once you retire nowadays though, so they doubled the amount taken off your payroll, calling it the 2e Pilier – but it’s still impossible to keep even your modest standards of living once retired if you had an average salary. So as an employee, basically the only options you have is 1° make enough to be able to save voluntarily a lot more and invest your capital wisely (basically: be among the top 20% earners); 2° Get out of the country as soon as you are too old to slave away and go die on some distant, cheap shores, we don’t need you anymore, thank you very much.

The sweet thing is – if you decide to call it a day and leave Switzerland for good today, the money saved under the 2e Pilier column can be yours, now. Not for long, they are planning to legally block that option, but it’s still possible. At the beginning of 2016, I decided I was going to do just that. What did I have to lose?

So here I am, one year later, in Port-Barton, Palawan, Philippines, with all my savings on a Thai bank account, looking for something, some place to rent, or even buy maybe someday somehow (though as a foreigner you can’t own a land or any kind of business on your own), some way to make enough so that I won’t ever have to go back (though as a foreigner you can’t work on a tourist visa). The idea is to open a beer microbrewery that would double as a bar, here in Port-Barton. But honestly, apart from a general picture of what my dream place would be, I feel a bit lost sometimes. What am I doing here? Do I have any clues? Answers in the next instalment of this blog (or not).