Although recent years have seen a drop in Korean tourist numbers of more than half compared to 2007, at least 40 Korean tour guide companies, along with several Korean restaurants and even a Korea town, are continuing to operate on Phuket, with official figures pointing to approximately 1,500 expat Korean residents on the island. However, when walking down the island’s streets, one may find that figure difficult to believe. But is that because Korean expats have achieved a level of integration into the local culture so deep that it has become difficult to discern them from native Thais or is it because they prefer to stick to their own groups and rarely exit their social shells?
According to one Korean supermarket owner from Korea Town, who desired to remain anonymous, the Som Tam is definitely not a reason for her stay in Thailand: “The locals only like us because of our money. I personally hate them and have never seen a good Thai person.” The main reason for her coming to Thailand two and a half years ago was for her children to receive an international education at a fraction of the price one would cost in Korea. Now, she cannot wait for them to obtain their diploma so that they can all return to Korea: “I can’t wait to return home, I dislike Phuket and cannot bring myself to liking Thai people.”
Nevertheless, despite being thankful for being Korean and not Thai, the store owner also admitted that she did not feel part of the local Korean community either and that she rarely went on social outings with her co-nationals due to time constraints. For her store’s sake, however, it is good news that a decent number of mainly Korean customers drop by each day to take advantage of her products.
On the other hand, the Korea Town food court does not seem to be faring as well, with what used to be a busy conglomerate of restaurants offering Kimchi-loving Koreans their daily delicacies reminding them of home now turned into a place where the odd existing food stalls serve primarily Thai dishes.
The bright past of Korea Town’s diners was enough for Korea-born Sanhi (Sunny) Jang to drive for more than nine hours about five years ago: “I used to work in a Koh Lanta diving shop and I was genuinely craving for Korean food one day, so I drove there with my boyfriend, as there was nothing in our area.”
At the time of Sunny’s visit, Korea Town was indeed one of the few places in Phuket where authentic Korean food was available, but as the island became increasingly popular with tourists, Korean visitors began to increase their expectations of better and more pompous culinary experiences. Today, the place is visited more frequently by Thais in search of a bite and has transformed into some type of Korean food court.
One of the few Korean restaurant owners left behind in Korea town today is Gwiyoung Choi, who, after fifteen years in the business on Phuket, still wishes the situation was sometimes more equal than it is: “The dogs of my Thai neighbour were barking very loudly a few weeks ago, so I went there to ask him to quieten them. However, as soon as I got there, he grabbed a gun and asked me to go back to my own country, in much harsher words. He also hit my husband and, when the police arrived, the officer told us that we had done right by not hitting them back, as he was Thai and we would have been in the wrong.”
Sunny herself admits that it may take quite some time to adapt to the cultural differences: “Koreans have a hard-working, emotional and sensitive nature, whereas Thais are much more mai bpen rai, or indifferent.” Nevertheless, Sunny also says that the relationship between Thais and Koreans is more complex than a simple one-sided one: “Thai people actually like the Korean culture, films, TV shows, music and traditional make-up, but they simply don’t like the people.” She also admits to be able to empathise with that opinion up to a certain point: “Koreans in Korea can be of many types, shy, confident, kind, but Phuket seems to only be attractive to a certain type of people, the selfish and rude Koreans who simply refuse to learn any amount of Thai or at least English in order to interact.”
Like expats from many other countries living on the island, most of the Koreans lead a much easier life compared to the one back home and are also relatively richer, despite not necessarily being educated or industrious. Many start working as Korean Tour Guides, a position that should only be open to Thai citizens and which is not technically legal due to that aspect. Nevertheless, both the employers and the employees take equal parts in the charade. In recalling her experience interviewing for a well-known Korean Tour Guide company, Sunny says that “things were going well until I asked about the work permit, to which the interviewer replied by asking me what the benefits of that would be.” Nevertheless, as there are not enough Korean speakers among Thai people to provide a realistic tour guide workforce, Koreans need to go into the job themselves, albeit illegally, and earn their daily bread. Many of them are not even paid on a base salary plan, but rather via commissions on extras and additional activities they manage to sell to their tourists. For example, a Korean tour guide would earn their money by arranging a day trip to Koh Phi Phi.
With most of the return flights to Korea not being scheduled until the evening or even as late as midnight, tour guides are typically paid on the final day of their clients’ visits, with the latter being at the mercy of their guides for the entire day at that time. And last days typically mean visits to Latex stores, a highly popular product among Koreans.
Given the differences in the characters of Thai and Korean cultures and the nearly paranoid aversion to each other, it is almost amazing as to how about 1,500 Korean nationals still choose to live in Phuket. It is also interesting to note the popularity of the Korean culture itself on the island, which has led to about 56 schools in Phuket today teaching the Korean language. Is it then only the money which brings these two apparently opposite groups together on the island, as the Korean store owner at the beginning of this article stated, or is there more to this intriguing relationship?
Sunny believes there is more to it than just money and has a five-year long relationship with her Thai boyfriend to prove that. However, her mother’s reaction to the news was extreme at the respective point: “She went as far as saying she might commit suicide if I married a non-Korean, but many of my family members are married to Americans or people of other nationalities, so the actual problem was him being Thai.” Since then, the situation entered calmer waters and Sunny’s parents are finally planning their first visit to their daughter later this year. This will also be their first contact with her boyfriend, Pratya Kumuda.
And, despite not speaking Korean and Sunny’s mother not speaking neither Thai nor English, Mr. Kumuda is, or at least seems, not distressed about the meeting: “Korean and Thai people are verry different. All we need to do is change a little.”