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Phuket: The last American boy scout

PHUKET: American-born Eric Snyder remembers the day he first arrived in Phuket. It was April 30,1975: the day the United States lost the Vietnam War.


By Jody Houton

Friday 17 August 2012, 06:02PM


This was merely coincidental though and in fact the softly spoken American was never a soldier in the war. “I had knowledge of various loopholes,” he says with a wry smile.

Although Eric is now the CEO and owner of Phuket legal consultancy law firm, Jairak Enterprises, when he first arrived on the island, straight from the hotel live music scene in Hong Kong, he was ‘Eric the bass player’ who had actually come very close to making the Philippines his home.

“I’d had enough of playing in Hong Kong hotels and the band I was playing with invited me to their hometown in the Philippines. But just as I was about to leave, it was declared under martial law, so obviously I changed my mind.”

A chance encounter with somebody recommending Phuket as a ‘dream destination’ changed all that.

“When I first arrived on the island, I was one of only about five farangs.”

As such, Eric found locating beachside accommodation incredibly difficult. This arduousness however enabled him to learn more about Thai hospitality and culture than would have otherwise been possible.

“One of the first nights I arrived in Phuket, I went to stay in Phuket Town and experienced a black out and I thought that was enough of that... I didn’t come to a tropical island to live in a town.”

The next morning Eric got on his motorbike and didn’t stop driving until he found Surin Beach, but unfortunately as it was the ‘70s and there weren’t any condos or hotels in the area, his search did not end as easily as that.

“I was driving through the town and people came out to stare at the farang. When I drove back through the village a man came out and waved me down.”

The man’s name was Somsak and he could speak English. Upon hearing that Eric wanted beachfront accommodation, he arranged that he could share – rent free – with his son who had just graduated from the Phuket Teacher’s College and was a teacher at the Kamala Elementary School.

One day a boy who had been helping him cook and learn English in exchange invited him to his uncle’s house and rubber plantation in the jungle. From that day forth Eric used to go and spend two to three days at a time for a three year period living his life in what he describes as a ‘city boy on a boy scout camp holiday for the first time in his life’.

“Deep in the Kamala jungle I used to spend my time on my bike or planting a vegetable garden or fishing with a Thai-style fishing rod. They didn’t speak English, nor I Thai but that wasn’t a problem.”

Eric recounts that this was how he started learning Thai. “Gin khao were my first words. I learned through hand gestures and it turned out to be the most important.”

Again Eric wasn’t asked to pay rent, but he did make himself useful in other ways.

Central Phuket

“Whenever I came, I just used to buy food from the visiting songtaew, which in those days used to be like a travelling market. It used to sell curry paste, salt, vegetables, chicken – everything.”

He also paid for electricity mains to be connected. “Back then showering was going down to the well and picking up water and pouring it over yourself.

“Going to the toilet was doing your business in the bushes. Every house had its own bush and it was fine... within a day or so the crabs had come along and taken care of most of the disposal.”

Over the years Eric got married, divorced, adopted a Thai boy and worked in a tour agency before attending the Sukhothai college in Bangkok where he gained his law degree – actually getting the highest rank in class – and setting up Jairak Enterprises.

Now his days dispensing legal advice and property advice are vastly different to his early Phuket days as a bare-chested motorcycle-driving bass player. In that time Phuket, like Eric, has changed in vast amounts, but Phuket is still very much his home and a place that he wouldn’t even consider leaving.

“Why do I stay?” he asks. “The local people, they’re great. You know I get so tired of hearing foreigners say that they got cheated by this Thai or that Thai, in fact there was one incident where I chased someone out of my office for bad-talking Thai people.

“The weather is also great, in high season it’s never too hot, there’s always a nice breeze and the rainy season is cool.

“I also stay for the food,” he says. “I eat mainly vegetarian food or seafood and there’s always plenty of that. If I’m hungry at 2am there will always be somewhere nearby where I can get some noodles or something.”

There are some elements though that Eric wishes hadn’t changed since his days as a Thai boy scout in the jungle. “I wish the Phuket authorities had been stricter enforcing the building regulations. If it would have been done 20 years ago, Phuket would have stayed much more beautiful.”

Eric believes that this desire, or perhaps necessity, to house and accommodate the influx of new islanders created a whole fleet of new problems, many of which went much deeper and has created much more lasting damage than just to the landscape.

“The biggest change has been the economy. The problems with mafia goes back to this time really. Many Patong and Phuket families sold their land in the ‘70s and ‘80s and squandered the cash, leaving their children, who are all grown up now, with nothing and nowhere to live. Most of them had no option but to get into tuk tuks, jet skis and taxis...”

Over the decades, Eric thinks that Phuketians have naturally become more materialistic and that it would be highly unlikely that a family would treat a foreigner now the same way that they treated him when he first arrived.

Despite this, rather refreshingly Eric said, “I wouldn’t want to wake up tomorrow and Phuket be the same way as it was 30 years ago.

“The infrastructure is great in Phuket, with a high standard of living and good atmosphere.”

 

 

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