19 March 2019
The Death of the Dream
Over the past few weeks the planets have been in all the wrong places at once; Uranus square my Mercury, Jupiter square my Saturn, and Saturn square both Neptune and Mars. On top of that, Mercury is retrograde until 24 March. As I have said before in this blog, the joke among astrologers is "it's a good year when you don't die three times." This time, we did.
Due to a combination of circumstances beyond our control, Purple Dragon ceased operations the second week of March. It's no secret that we have been struggling since Google penalized us about eighteen months ago, and our daily visitors dropped from about 200 to five. We went on an austerity program and I began to transform our website with Nueng's help to make Google happy. Traffic has been returning slowly, and business has been returning almost to normal. But suddenly, and unexpectedly, we hit a wall. Two weeks ago I was planning to paint my condo. This week I'm beginning to pack. My days in Thailand are numbered since I will eventually lose my visa and work permit.
How could something like this happen so suddenly? Let me give you the short answer. First, it starts with cash flow. I have had two different partners; originally John and Robert, who were arrested, endured a phony trial, and deported. Later, the psychotic alcoholic Italian producer. Both left me with empty bank accounts. In other words, we had no safety net when times were lean. We have managed over the years to pay for next week's tour with payments for trips that will be taken two months hence. I suspect most travel companies like ours survive this way. We have tried to raise money through premium Club Sanook memberships and share sales, but neither proved to be a solution. Post-Google I put about $16K into the company to keep it buoyant. That's all I had since I have not taken a salary in a year.
The next ingredient is the apparent closure of a tour company we work with outside of Thailand. They have been struggling to survive as well. When you pay a company like this thousands of dollars for your customers' tours and they close, you lose your money, and so the domino-effect begins.
So what happens if, at exactly the same time, every one of your pending unpaid bookings (including a nice little group of 12 with a rented beach-front villa) either cancel or simply do not pay you? The cash stops flowing, and it has stayed that way.
If you have a customers scheduled to travel with the defunct company in two weeks and you do not have enough to pay for their tours a second time, they become upset. Wouldn't you be? You would probably complain to the bank that issued your credit card or to the company that processes our payments. At that point they suspend your account, meaning that you cannot process new payments, even if there were any. For an internet company like ours, that spells doom.
We did not plan this, nor did we expect it really. It just happened, and clearly there was no way out but to surrender. Needless to say, we are numb. Shaken. Devastated. Deeply saddened. Humiliated.
In addition to our own personal dilemmas, some of our customers have or will lose money they paid for future tours unless they had trip cancellation insurance. I wish this would not happen, but we have no way to avoid it. We practically beg our customers to cover their travel with insurance. It doesn't cost much, and covers the cost of the trip in case of a serious problem (like death) within your immediate family, your own inability to travel if you are injured before or after you have begun traveling. And, of course, the unexpected inability of a service supplier to give you what you paid for. If you learn anything from reading this blog, it is that a few dollars for insurance is a good bet. I profoundly regret anyone's loss of money. I have stayed with this business through thick and (mostly) thin because I wanted to bring joy and enlightenment into the lives of our customers, not anger.
Chutima and I are in the process of dismantling our office. Out of an abundance of caution we have thrown away practically nothing for the last fifteen years, so I have been going through drawers of files and depositing their contents in to trash bags after removing paper clips and anything that looks like a credit card number.
This forced march down memory lane has not been entirely a burden. This morning I laid to rest customer files (one for each trip) going back to 2004. I came across many names of guests who have become friends over the years. I still remember planning many of those trips with the hope they would be rich, rewarding experiences.
There have also been drawers full of administrative files--mostly financial and marketing documents, some from companies that no longer exist, and personnel records for staff members who have died (two), moved abroad (several), or changed careers or completely (unknown). I found quite a bit about our involvement in Bangkok Pride, which I helped to found, our recovery from the great tsunami of 2004 that devastated Phuket, our efforts to alleviate suffering after the Myanmar earthquake of 2011 (with plenty of help from our customers), our initiative to save families and boost village incomes in Cambodia, and TATA, a registered non-profit organization. We founded the Thai Alternative Travel Association to bring together LGBTQ people and businesses working in tourism here. When the Thai government figured out it was a gay nonprofit they "disappeared" it.
The file I spent most time with yesterday contained more than 100 letters of indignation sent to Juthamas Sirawan, then Governor of the Tourist Authority of Thailand, when TAT wanted to revoke our license following John and Robert's deportation. If you read our newsletters you already know that Juthamas is now in a federal prison in the U.S. Wish I could feel sorry for her.
Besides feeling defeated and humiliated by this unexpected turn in my life, I do feel that a big burden has been lifted. Running this business single-handedly for the last 16 of our 20 years has taken a toll on me. All of us here have suffered through the epic trial of John and Robert, two failed partnerships, the suicide of my partner of seven years (after he helped himself to about 235,481 baht from me and the company), a health crisis, accidental lung cancer and brain metastasis, and all of the political crap I have told you about in this blog over the years. I have loved living here, but I am ready for something more laid-back; a big French farmer's house, a garden, a dog, maybe a husband, and that last book that has been percolating in my head. The autobiography of Darika Watchalottaporn? We'll see.
My best memories of the last twenty years will be of the people who have worked side by side with me every day, and the customers who became friends and returned over and over. Even under the weight of all these rambunctious planets, I can still say I have really loved this job, and especially the people I have had the privilege to serve. I just wish it had all ended differently. We went to great lengths to attempt to avoid it.
I'll still be sending people to Bhutan and possibly more since my adopted son in Siem Reap plans to open a tour company here in Siem Reap. My horoscope this morning advised me to "be open to new possibilities."
Read about the fallout on my FB page: https://www.facebook.com/BKKEXPAT