Nostalgia and the need to face old monsters for many ex-Vietnam veterans is a driving force to return to Vietnam or other parts of Southeast Asia. Barry Petersen was one of those young men who served in the Australian army and as a result he spent most of his early years in Asia. He describes moving to Thailand, when he was in his late 50s, as like a homecoming.
In the late 1950s, Barry lived in Malaya, as a young lieutenant, with a platoon of 32, chasing Communist terrorists, as he put it. Then he went to South Vietnam as part of a training team, on loan to the American CIA; his role was to gather intelligence and recruit, train and operate mountain tribesmen in the central highlands, in Darlac Province. The primary aim was to interrupt Vietcong activities along the Ho Chi Minh Trail that ran north–south through the mountains of Vietnam.
Barry retired from the Australian army with the rank of colonel in 1979, aged 45. ‘I found that life was very boring in Australia,’ he said. ‘I had a small farm outside Cairns (in Queensland’s tropical north) but I was coming back to Southeast Asia every year from the mid-1980s onwards—back to Vietnam from 1987.
‘Then one trip I was in Cambodia on the Mekong River. We were going downstream from Kampong Cham to Phnom Penh. I’d stayed on the boat one night, enjoyed a bath at the end of the boat in the river water, and I was having a “Mekong temperature beer (because the Mekong water was the only way to keep it cool). I was just watching the sun set and I thought, “A fellow could do a lot worse than going back to Asia to live”.’
These days, Barry lives in Bangkok above the office of his business. It is a modernised (badly modernised in a 1980s sort of way) shophouse. A shophouse is typically a construction with a shop on the ground level above which is one or two floors of accommodation.
Barry’s shophouse is barred for security. Steel-grilled gates open directly onto the street. There is a tiny courtyard, but it is barren with just a couple of tired, potted plants. Just two steps on, you are at the front door.
The shophouse is in a dead-end lane off a soi—a side street that runs off one of the major arterial roads in central Bangkok—in Langsuan. The area roughly compares to Sydney’s Woollahra or Melbourne’s South Yarra (or New York’s meatpacking district)—albeit a bit on the treeless and scrappy side. There’s a lot of tar and concrete; it was hot walking down the lane to get to the house. There are no trees in the lane.
This is an ultra-urban environment. It is not the tropical Thailand that many holiday makers experience in Koh Samui or Phuket. But it suits Barry. Approaching 80 years of age, he is unwell, but from here he can easily get to local restaurants, coffee houses and to the doctor. And with all his staff working below in the building, Barry has a huge amount of company. He is never lonely.
Moving to Asia was the best decision Barry could have made—Australia was boring him rigid, as he explained: ‘Every time I returned to Australia after my regular trips to Asia, I determined that my previously “worldly” neighbours were becoming very parochial. They were interested in what I had been doing in Cambodia and Vietnam and Thailand. So I would tell them. But then the conversation would switch back to potholes in the road and the council rates. I thought, “Oh no, I am going to end up like these people.” So it didn’t take much persuasion—just that one beer on the Mekong—to make me say, “I’ll sell my property in Australia.”’
Asia in the 1990s provided Barry a fresh adventure, a new life, just as it did when he was a young man in the 1960s. After he sold up and packed up, he initially thought he would get a farm somewhere in Thailand. ‘Then I got here and thought, you know, it’s going to be just as bad down there in the province, in fact worse than it is outside Cairns. All the villagers will only be able to talk about potholes, or their equivalent of potholes.’
So he was loitering, as he puts it, in Bangkok in 1993. And through a rather convoluted process, Barry, then 59, started a new business: a consultancy, Lang Suan House Co Ltd, that focused on foreign companies establishing in Thailand. Taking advantage of Barry’s extensive experience in Asia, its services include registering foreign companies for tax and VAT, and assisting them with other business practices like banking, accounting, tax returns, payroll and obtaining work permits and visas.
All of Barry’s Thai employees are close to him—they are his family now, his friends, his life. They work in the office below his apartment. Many of them have already become equity holders in the business, but Barry told us he plans to leave the company to his Thai colleagues.
‘I am far better off here than I would ever be in Australia,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t be able to manage my farm anymore. I would have had to move into Cairns and live in an old men’s home and my company would be fellow veterans who could only talk about the same things over and over again. And I wouldn’t have a family like this.’
Barry says he can live well in Thailand on his military pension. It was this pension that gave him the income he needed in the early years while he was building up his business. He doesn’t think that retirees moving to Thailand will confront many problems: the main issue, he believes, is quite simple—‘You just need to get on with Thais’.
Barry has never looked back. He is adamant that the decision to move to Thailand was the correct decision. Thailand is a great retirement destination. The Cost of Living is cheap and the health services are first world. Consumer prices in Thailand are almost 60 per cent lower than in Australia. Rent is around 65 per cent cheaper, restaurant prices 75 per cent lower and groceries 50 per cent less.