My blog is usually about two months behind “real time” for a myriad of reasons, most to do with scheduling and turn-around time. Occasionally, though, things are just too painful to write about straight away. The incident which is the subject of this post happened back in January when my family and friends were visiting Mark and I in Thailand, but I just couldn’t write about it until now, when another blogger’s bad landlord story brought the memories flooding back. This is a post about one of the lowlights of my year. In the aftermath I actually saw red with rage or blue with heartache any time I thought about it and couldn’t sit down at the computer to write the story without wanting to cause physical harm to another human being. I’m still angry, and I’m still a little sad, but at least now I can see straight.
Here’s the short version: We had a gangster landlord from hell. Now for the (very) long version, one laced with unlawful eviction, a hint of the mafia, and a whole lot of angst.
When we got back to Thailand from Vietnam the month before everyone arrived for the holidays, Mark and I moved into a new apartment. We were warned the landlord scammed on the bills but it was a beautiful place with many windows, gorgeous views, a separate bedroom and room for a little office area. Most importantly, it was big enough for guests and we really wanted to make everyone comfortable. And I’ll admit that something else attracted me to the place — I wanted to show off a little. It sounds silly, but it felt like a nice apartment would prove that I was making a legitimate lifestyle choice by living and working in Thailand, whereas a decrepit hut would show I was bumming around and wasting my life away.
I spent days rearranging furniture, organizing our meager belongings and buying new things, just nesting… that first week Mark came home every day from work to a new furniture arrangement or a newly organized bookcase that I would proudly show off. We had been moving around for months, never settling into an apartment for very long and I was so, so really to settle down and to have a home. As the weeks went on I worked happily all day sitting in the adorable home office I had made and felt so content at night, sitting on the deck and watching the sunset with a cocktail in hand. I felt like I had a home. When the first month’s bills arrived it was true that the landlord MAJORLY scammed us (I’m talking almost 10x what we paid in previous apartments), but while we did make a point to voice our objections, we paid and stayed. On Christmas Eve I showed the place to my family I was so proud, beaming while they took photos and oohed and ahhed.
On New Year’s day we returned from Koh Pha Ngan with 5 guests in tow (one was only for one night, two for two nights). It was crowded but we had a bed, a pullout bed and a couch, so we had more than enough room. We were all hanging out and having a good time when the landlord came to the door with his son and demanded to speak to Mark, who was out. He didn’t want to talk to me, really, which isn’t that uncommon in Thailand, where women aren’t always equal. He did speak to me enough to tell me that we weren’t allowed to have guests, and we needed to pay them 500 baht per guest per night. I was upset but didn’t take it very seriously — that would be the equivalent of a quarter of our monthly rent per night for guests — surely Mark would talk to them and they would see that wasn’t reasonable. Also, I knew that our next-door neighbor was a passionate Couchsurfing host, thus had frequent guests and even checked with the same landlord that it was okay to have them as a pre-requisite for moving in. So I couldn’t imagine that we would really have to pay for having guests for the first time in our own apartment. In fact, for the inflated amount he charged us for utilities, I thought he’d be happy to have a few extra people using up water and electricity!
The next morning Mark went to speak to the landlord with one of our guests who speaks fluent Thai. When they returned they told me the unthinkable: we had to vacate immediately. I was knocked sideways by shock — we hadn’t done anything wrong, and that was our home. It was so unfair I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I refused to leave that day both on principle and because we had nowhere to go. Also, two of our friends were leaving the next day, and finding a new place for 4 would be easier than for 6. Still, I immediately removed the valuables from our place and put a padlock on the door.
We started looking for a new apartment that afternoon while my friends entertained themselves. Immediately we realized things were bleak — it was peak season and there was nothing available, aside from a shared room in an apartment full of strung out junkies. Remember, we were on an island and resources, like apartments, were finite. I was dissolving into tears constantly, leaving Mark to do most of the talking. We searched the entire next day as well while my friends entertained themselves again and as night fell we accepted we had nowhere to go. After a panic filled hour checking hotel after hotel with no vacancy, we found a moldy room with a fan and cold water. I said goodbye to the two of my friends who were leaving, heartbroken that I missed their final days on the island. Then I went back to the home we were being kicked out of and I sobbed as I packed our things, so quickly dismantling the place that I had so carefully built up to a home. We moved our stuff into a friend’s house and stayed in the hotel for the night, two people to each twin bed. I could not believe that this was happening to me or to my friends on their preciously short vacations. Meanwhile, our Koh Tao family had mobilized to help us find a place and in a turn of merciful luck, the next day we found a tiny bungalow that was opening up. We moved in on the same day the previous renter moved out. It was nothing to be excited about but beggars can’t be choosers… and we were some seriously homeless beggars at that point.
To add insult to injury, the landlord charged us for a full month’s worth of bills (we were ten days into the month, but I think he was always making the numbers up anyway) and did not return our security deposit, claiming we owed it to him for the nights with our guests. Keep in mind our neighbors being told guests were no problem and having them on a rotating basis with no charge. But here was that same landlord, kicking us out and rendering us homeless, and flat-out stealing half a month’s rent from us on top of it.
Why not go to the police, you ask? I tried. Our landlord was a powerful man on the island and the police said full stop that they would not get involved with him, no matter what he did. Make no mistake… this is no poverty-striken man trying to make enough money to feed his family by charging privileged white people a few extra bucks. This is a wealthy, powerful Thai man who controls several businesses and a lot of property on the island, and who knows what else. For obvious reasons I never went into this aspect of life on Koh Tao much, but it is an island controlled by the Thai mafia, as I learned more and more clearly with every month I lived there. It’s a place where gangsters and hit men are in control, not the police.
I was driven mad by the unfairness of it all… that we did nothing wrong, that our landlord more or less could have rendered us homeless by evicting us with no notice in high season (we had one dark moment where we talked of leaving the island), but most of all the horrible timing. I missed my last precious days with my friends, I was in the darkest of moods when I did get to see them, and I was humiliated. Two days later we heard through the grapevine that our old apartment was already filled… the new renter was paying 50% more than we had. So I guess I had my reason, finally. All of that, so much anger and pain and sadness and heartbreak so our wealthy landlord could line his pockets a bit more.
Looking back with a few month’s worth of perspective, I am still very angry, but I’m also a little surprised by how this shook me to my core. I still can’t really explain how deeply this affected me — I can’t remember the last time I felt so angry or helpless. Part of it was the unfairness, yes. But I think more it was the feeling of being taken advantage of. I’m always the first to be outraged by powerful people taking advantage of the powerless… only this time it was me that was totally screwed.
There was another element at play as well. It was also a swift firm slap of reality to realize that we were living in a lawless society — we had no rights, no one to call for help, and no one to file a complaint with when we were wronged. All of us expats on the island greatly enjoyed the freedom that came from living in a place that was the opposite of a police state — we rode our motorcycles with little to no regard for traffic laws, we almost all worked under-the-table on tourist visas, and we occasionally took part in activities that are highly illegal in our home countries but receive a barely-blinking blind-eye in Thailand. Suddenly I found myself sitting on the other side of that equation, and the view wasn’t pretty. I was also really blindsided: I was so in love with the Thai people as a nation that I forgot there are bad people everywhere. I won’t make that mistake again.
This was the lowlight of my year of travels for so many reasons, but most of all because it left me feeling dark and cynical and distrustful. If there is one good thing that came from this, it was that we were truly touched by how many of our friends on Koh Tao really reached out and tried to help us when we were down. You really find out who your true friends are when the going gets tough and I was brought to tears to realize how many we really had. I hate to end on a low note, but I guess this is life: just as there are going to be a few bad landlords, there are going to be a few bad endings.
Note: If you are living in or moving to Koh Tao and want to avoid doing business with a thug, feel free to message me and I’ll send you the details. This man also owns a bike shop and several other businesses.