Welcome to my new series: Earning Abroad! I am often asked for blogging advice from readers eager to make a living overseas. Yet the percentage of truly successful bloggers is so low, promoting it as a viable income source to the masses feels a bit like peddling a course at the Barbizon School of Modeling. Plus — I’m still figuring it out myself! I thought it would be more interesting to introduce you to some inspiring and ambitious friends I’ve met on the road — friends who have found viable work away from their home countries.
In a lifestyle where friends slip in and out of your life with ease, Brian McCarthy has the distinction of being on of my longest lasting travel friends, and a face that will be familiar to long-time Alex in Wanderland readers. He was easily one of my favorite people in the Cayman in 2010, where he was working as a dive instructor and I was interning as a photographers’ assistant. When I saw he was getting island fever, I encouraged him to move to Thailand, where I guessed he’d fit right in. I was right — when I finally made my way back in 2011 he was already a fixture on Koh Tao. And it was a sight for sore eyes when he and his business partners showed up in Indonesia to sniff out new business opportunities while I was there doing my divemaster. A hug from an old friend becomes a precious commodity when you live your life on the move.
Brian lives what many would consider to be a dream life — he co-owns a bar on a tropical island with two of his best friends. Banyan was my local bar on Koh Tao, and rarely a day went by that I didn’t drop through at some point. However, I admit that most of my memories there are not ones that would make it on the blog. Luckily, Brian is willing to be candid. On that note: those sensitive to crude language and/or offensive gestures, please read no further.
AB: Walk us through a typical day on the job.
BM: Typical is not really a word usually associated with Banyan Bar. On a regular day we are open from 8am-midnight and any part of any day is just as likely to be quiet as it is insane. There’s usual one person working the day shift and two on at night. If I’ve got the morning shift it means I’m there at 7:30am to cash up, sort out the tabs, and get the bar stocked and ready for the day. About 1/3 of the time there will already be people waiting for drinks that are still going from the night before and while they’re usually entertaining it definitely slows down the opening process. Once the bar is stocked then the main job is keeping everyone happy and drinking throughout the day. The night shift starts at 4:00pm and you will usually place one last order to make sure there is enough ice and alcohol to last the night and then start getting everyone as drunk as possible while trying to keep them relatively injury-free.
It is a local’s (ex-pat) bar on a small tourist island which means the vast majority of our customers are also our friends. On a good day this means I’m basically getting paid to drink with my friends as long as I make all the drinks. I can’t think of many things I enjoy as much as days like this. A rough day usually involves trying to diplomatically deal with a lot of way-too-drunk people, most of which are friends and about to fight and/or fuck and/or drive their motorbike without a helmet on lawless, poorly maintained mountain roads. These days can be incredibly nerve-wracking and infuriating. Those are the regular bartender responsibilities. Adding in ownership duties brings a never-ending supply of surprise headaches. Keeping the power and water on, the bar stocked, the staff content the police and neighboring business owners happy, and maintaining the always poorly built property can be very difficult when everyone else has English as a 2nd language (at best).
How long have you had this position?
I’ve been working here as a bartender/manager for about 2.5 years and added owner to the title about 1.5 years ago.
How did you come to own a bar in Thailand? What inspired you to find this job? Basically what was your journey from behind a cubicle to behind a bar!
This was definitely more a case of a job finding me. I finished university and got a cubicle job then figured out immediately that that lifestyle was not for me and quit after two months. I had a real passion for diving and had already been doing it for years so I did some research and found a good instructor course in Grand Cayman. I flew down, took the course, got a job and moved there. Easily the best decision I ever made. After three great years there I figured it was time to move on for some new experiences and some friends recommended checking out Koh Tao, Thailand [Editor’s Note: AHEM!]. I immediately fell in love with the island, like so many before me, and got to work as a freelance dive instructor. Eventually I landed a full time gig at a newer school which I’m proud to say is currently one of the highest rated on the island even though (or because) I haven’t had anything to do with the place in a year. While working as an instructor I managed to get a part time job working at a recently-opened locals bar down the road. This was my 1st ever job in the industry and started with a few shifts a week but quickly progressed into a management position and then an opportunity for part-ownership. As far as the job finding me; I had spent enough time on the other side of bars to consider it a full time position. Only natural to figure out a way to get paid for what I was going to be doing anyway. This is the perfect job for a functioning alcoholic.
How did your family and friends react to your initial departure? How are they handling it now?
Leaving was really tough at first and the family and friends were not happy about it. Leaving directly caused the end of a three year relationship with a girl I loved and in the following six years I’ve lost contact with the majority of my old friends from high school and college. I’m very close with my family and they could not be more supportive but being so far apart is difficult.
Fortunately they’re happy because they know I’m happy. When I first left it was to Grand Cayman which was only a four hour flight from home and I was able to make it home every year and people could visit me fairly easily. The folks liked it when I was there because they had a good excuse to visit the Caribbean a few times a year and got to dive for free. Now living on the opposite side of the planet makes things a lot harder. We are 12 times zones apart so just about every conversation involves one side drunk-dialing the other while they are just waking up. I’ve only been home once in the last three years and only manage to see my family once a year tops. I would love to be able to get back to my original hemisphere eventually but right now things are going too good out here for me to leave.
How much money do you make? Is it enough to live on?
My paycheck is quick to point out that I’m not doing this for the money. If I were to work it out (which I’m not going to do because it’s sad) I probably take home under $25,000 a year. That does not include the fact that all my food and much more importantly drinks (by far my biggest expense) are free at the bar. Also this is tax free since the US government doesn’t care when you earn so little money abroad. While this would put me beneath the poverty line in the states, it basically means I get to live like a king as long as I’m still in Thailand since the cost of living is so low. I live in a big three bedroom house with a couple friends. The place has flushing toilets, hot water, air conditioning, cable, and internet which are all luxuries out here. I eat out literally every meal here because it is so cheap and easy. Whole meals are $2 at just about any Thai restaurant on the island and you can also get a perfectly good steak and glass of wine for $15. I think I’ve used my kitchen once in the last three years and that was when someone mailed me some Kraft Mac n Cheese. I go out most nights as there are way too many excuses to party here. There is always a birthday, someone leaving from or returning to the island, a holiday, or a bar just deciding to have a random party. We regularly organize mini-vacations to neighboring islands or northern Thailand and have plenty of days out on friend’s boats. I can also dive for free with some of the school’s here whenever I want. Laundry and cleaning is taken care of by Burmese immigrants for incredibly cheap. I really wouldn’t stand a chance trying to go back to city life in the states.
What kind of legal hoops do you have to jump through?
My first year and half here I was working illegally just like the 90% of the other foreigners working here. There is no immigration office on the island so most people get 3 month tourist visas, which do not allow you to work, and then work here anyway. This means a 3-day trip to a bordering country every 3 months to sort out another visa. Now I have a work permit which allows me to stay in Thailand and work year round; however, if I do want to leave I need to send off my passport a couple weeks in advance and pay about $30 every time. I have no idea why. I have a very shady lawyer that takes care of anything related to immigration and permits. Pretty sure he just charges me whatever he thinks he can get away with but I haven’t had any problems yet so I’m happy. All other legal problems are taken care of with bribes. Every business on the island pays $15-$30 a month to a joint fund that keeps the immigration officers from the mainland from coming and taking away 90% of the workforce. We also pay about $120 every month to the local police so they stay away and don’t give us a hard time. We’ve been able to stay under the radar for the most part so the police bribe is much less than most of the other big tourist bars. Seems strange but it is a real part of doing business in Thailand and it’s always amusing writing ‘bribe’ on the expense report.
What skills do you need for this job?
Thick skin and an incredibly efficient liver. The bartending part of this job is fairly easy. It’s a chilled out bar and we aren’t making any complicated cocktails and the till is basically just a box of money. This was my first ever bartending job and there wasn’t much of a learning curve to it. That being said this job is definitely not for everyone. There is a lot of mandatory drinking involved so being able to count money while drunk is important. I think every member of staff has passed out at some point while working. The clientele is made up of outgoing drunks who like to get very loose. This results in a lot of verbal abuse directed at each other and the staff. You also need to keep an eye out for any number of projectiles ranging from ice to fire, coasters and stools, a rape alarm that drew blood (don’t think that’s how it’s supposed to be used yet obviously still effective), and the occasional choke-out from a 110 pound Canadian girl. An important part of working here involves being able to give and take the abuse and not being afraid to tell a customer to fuck off. We’ve had to be more careful about hiring after one girl left her first shift in tears and never came back. I really have no idea how some of our long term staff have managed to put up with us for so long.
The most important trait for the managerial side of things has to be patience. This is a tiny island in the middle of nowhere that is only accessible by boat. Getting everything you need when you need it is basically impossible. Dealing with useless suppliers from all over the world is occasionally a soul-destroying task. Receiving threats on my life and the bar from other jealous business owners is another fun thing to deal with.
What are the best and worst things about owning a bar in Thailand?
Well, owning a bar in a popular tourist destination on a tropical island sounds like a lot of fun. Turns out it really is. Basically it’s a never-ending supply of alcohol, drugs, women, and hilarity. I regularly find myself doubled over in pain from laughing too much while working. Don’t think I ever had that problem while in the accounting department. Free booze on a night out is kind of nice as well.
The surface worst part is probably the hangovers and inevitable liver failure. The real worst part is being so far from my family and dealing with the constant departure of close friends. All of the people here are travelers. The average amount of time people stay here is probably under 6 months (not counting the tourists who are usually here a few days to a few weeks). The hardest part of this lifestyle is having to say goodbye to so many amazing people so often. Also, seeing way too much full frontal male nudity.
What would your advice be to someone seeking to do the same?
Fucking do it. The hard part is leaving and that’s really more scary than hard. I’ve moved twice now on my own to foreign countries where I didn’t know a single person. Leading up to the move is stressful but once you’re in a place like this, surrounded by other people who have done the same thing, you realize it actually wasn’t very difficult after all. The risk vs. reward for doing something like this is heavily favors the reward. Worst case scenario is things don’t work out and you probably move back home to what you were already doing which is usually the end-game for most people anyway. Best case scenario is you meet a lot of interesting people and see and experience tons of new and amazing things. Possibly you wind up part-owner of a bar on a tropical island whose most stressful daily decision is where to go for lunch. I really think living and working abroad is such a great experience that everyone needs to try at some point.
What do you know about Thailand that you wouldn’t have learned as a tourist? How has working in Thailand changed your experience there?
This is kind of a tough one because I came to Thailand specifically for work and have never really been a tourist here. One big thing is just realizing that this is not the West and things are going to be done completely differently from what you might expect back home. I still see things all the time that surprise and amaze me even after 3 years. One of my favorites being the Ko Tao ‘ambulance’ – 3 people on 1 motorbike, the front person driving, the patient in the middle all bandaged up, and the person in back holding up the IV bag for the patient. Another interesting thing here is the ‘yes’ mentality. Whenever we need anything built or fixed, they will find a way to make it happen even though they rarely have the right supplies, tools, or expertise. The Thai’s hate to disappoint and will answer just about any question with ‘yes’ or ‘tomorrow’ regardless of what the real answer may be. This can be frustrating at times when they say tomorrow for the eighth day in a row but at least they always smile as they say it. One time a mechanic told me something would take four days which made me really nervous. I got the bike back two months later.
After working here a while I’ve found myself very used to all of the differences. I know getting something done will take much longer than I’d expect and no longer get frustrated about it. I know to order things way in advance of actually needing them and understanding when they still don’t show up on time. I’m sure my English has gotten worse because I’m so used to speaking basic broken English to the people from all of the world that call this place home. I no longer cringe when I see a Burmese laborer doing something incredibly dangerous, or a new mother carrying her infant in a sarong while driving a motorbike, or five people on one scooter with the oldest being about 12.
Are there differences between working in your home country and Thailand?
There are way more differences than similarities. There is no such thing as health and safety over here. I have no idea if something like the FDA even exists in Thailand. Alex can also tell you there is definitely no such thing as responsible serving at our bar or any others on this island/Thailand [Editor’s Note: Definitely served a thirteen year old during my short stint as a Koh Tao bartender]. There really aren’t any rules or regulations for anything. Honestly, I’m sure we would never get away with running a restaurant and bar the same way in the west. Yet ‘magically’ no one ever gets sick from anything we serve or blame us for any injuries that happen here or shortly after they leave.
Have you had other experience working abroad?
I worked as a dive instructor in Grand Cayman and Koh Tao before switching to bartending. Cayman was much different from Koh Tao. The island was very affluent and my job was on a normal 7:30-5, five days a week, type of schedule. The company sorted out the work permits, paid a salary, provided insurance, and even contributed to a retirement fund. We also earned quite a bit in tips because most of the customers were American tourists. I was a boat captain and dive instructor. The average day involved swimming out to the boat in the morning, checking the engines and bringing it in to the dock to pick up the divers. The vast majority of our business was from people coming off of cruise ships. We would take a maximum of 24 divers or 100 snorkelers per boat and had 6 different boats. After picking them up we would drive out to the dive sites, complete two dives and then return them to the ship — then do it a second time. At the end of the day I would clean the boat and tie it up on a mooring, then swim in and have a few beers on the deck with the other instructors. Driving the boats is definitely what I miss the most about that job. The island was quite expensive and conservatively religious so there wasn’t much partying going on, at least not compared to Tao.
Working as an instructor in Koh Tao is significantly different. Everyone is paid on commission based on the number of students. This leads to a very cut-throat atmosphere among the instructors, even within the individual schools. If business is slow and you don’t have anyone to teach then you don’t have to go to work but you also don’t make any money. Most of the customers are cheap, young European backpackers. This means you will not be earning any tips but they are a lot of fun to party with. The island has no rules and even fewer people to enforce them. I know someone here who has literally gotten away with murder. There is also no real hospital. We all take care of each other and people who don’t fit in tend not to last too long on the island.
What are your plans for the future?
Right now we are working on expanding the business. We’ve been doing some research into opening more bars on other islands as well as looking around for opportunities on Koh Tao to open up some rooms for rent. The goal being to eventually be able to open bars in places with a stronger currency than Baht. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to work behind a Banyan Bar somewhere in the Caribbean.
What question should I have asked instead?
Many thanks to Brian for sharing this peek inside his life with us! Now… who’s ready to go buy a bar?