5 Expats Who Have Become Thai Citizens Reflect On Their Naturalisation
1/5 Doris Gold Wibunsin
Resident in Thailand for 54 years, experienced educator Doris Gold Wibunsin was introduced to the country via the Peace Corps. “I was 22 years old and a graduating senior at the University of Miami at the time that John F Kennedy became president,” she says, referring to the man who began the renowned volunteer programme. It wasn’t long before Wibunsin, who taught English after university, signed herself up. “It was an interesting period in my life because the training was very intensive in those days. They were very strict in their selection of volunteers and we were always worried that they would cut us out,” she explains.
In 1963 Wibunsin passed the selection process and before she knew it she found herself on the plane to Thailand. She laughs, “In Bangkok we were taught about all the volunteer locations upcountry but when the Peace Corps office showed me where I was going to be assigned, I wanted to go home because I was to be sent south to Trang, and no one had ever mentioned the south before.”
Consoled by the Peace Corps officer’s promise to engineer a swift return to the US by sending a telegram citing a family emergency, Wibunsin agreed to board the train to Trang and stay for a week. She smiles, “It was enough. After six days the magic of Thailand and its people had me hooked.” Wibunsin taught English to high school students and before long her two year posting, plus an extra year, was up. During her time in Trang the locals named her Darisa Suwansakul, after her own name. “I decided to pull back because there was a time when Peace Corps volunteers around the world were returning to America and finding it hard to re-adjust, so I figured I’d better go back. That said, I always knew in my heart that I would return.”
She spent the next three years earning a master’s degree in linguistics at the University of Pittsburgh and then in 1969 returned to Thailand as a Fulbright lecturer at the Prince of Songkhla University at Pattani, where she worked for two years before becoming the director of the Fulbright Foundation in Thailand. “During this time I met a very nice young Thai man named Chaicharn Wibunsin and in 1971 we got married. He was a judge and his first posting was in Yala, which was right next to Pattani,” Wibunsin smiles. “The how we met is a long story, but ultimately it was just fate. I knew it was going to happen even though I tried very hard not to let it happen.”
For Wibunsin, Thai citizenship didn’t come until the 1990s. “I thought it was time. A big factor was knowing that I could have dual citizenship as an American,” she says. “There were few issues in the citizenship process because I was married to my husband by then for 20 years and we had three children. I didn’t even have to do any tests but it was a bureaucratic paper chase getting my application validated.” Her Thai citizenship was eventually confirmed in 1996 after the realms of paperwork that had to be submitted. “It was very gratifying to have it announced in the Royal Gazette,” says the happily retired 80-year-old in conclusion.
2/5 Caroline Murphy
Caroline Murphy first arrived in Thailand 31 years ago and says Bangkok was a different city back then. “It was charming but not what it is now. It used to flood like crazy and the traffic was 10 times worse. It was also smaller then. Rama IX Road was flanked by rice paddies as far as the eye could see and there was no big infrastructure like expressways or the skytrain. It was a lot more challenging in terms of living here. Back then Thais were still intrigued by a long-stay foreigner and would point me out all the time,” she laughs.
The decision to come to Thailand was her ex-husband’s says Murphy, who had just graduated from the London School of Economics and gotten married in the UK. “But it was during the era of Margaret Thatcher, when things weren’t so great in the UK,” she explains. “My ex-husband, who is Thai, suggested we move to Thailand and so we came, first for a holiday and then permanently.” Originally from Ireland, Murphy has lived the majority of her life outside of her country. “The only thing I miss, other than my family, is the Irish humour and countryside. But then Ireland is quite small and in many ways parochial, which contrasts hugely with the hustle and bustle of Thailand and particularly Bangkok.”
From the outset Murphy intended to have a family and make Thailand home. “I didn’t have a job so I looked in the Bangkok Post to see if there was anything I could do. When I found a job in the real estate business I was determined to learn Thai and began by getting the girls at work to teach me 10 words a day. We established a kind of language exchange hub at work during office hours,” she laughs. She also studied in the traffic on the way to and from work. “I was very disciplined, regimented and determined.” That dedication paid off and today Murphy can speak, read and write Thai fluently.
As for Thai citizenship, the 48-year-old says she has applied. “I would love to have citizenship and have applied but for a number of reasons, it has yet to be formalised,” she says. “There’s an unbelievable amount of paperwork.” Aware she has to sing the Thai royal and national anthems, Murphy admits with a smile, “I can do that, yes.”
Bangkok was charming but not what it is now. It used to flood like crazy and the traffic was 10 times worse. It was also smaller then.
— Caroline Murphy
For Murphy, Thailand will always be her home. Aside from being here for her children Matthew and Grace, every year in Bangkok is different and something new always presents itself. “I think there’s such a great creative scene here, in all aspects from fashion to food. There’s always something that you never knew existed, it’s just a city full of surprises.”
3/5 Philip Baechtold
“It was June 1983. I was 27 years old and working for Swiss multinational gemstone and jewellery company Golay Buchel,” says Philip Baechtold. “I was sent to Thailand to set up a buying office for gemstones being cut and polished in Thailand.” The Swiss national remembers his first impression of the country well. He laughs, “When you get off the plane you are hit with the heat and smell, a very particular smell. Even now when I return to Thailand from abroad I get that same sensation. I know I’m back—maybe it’s something in the air.”
For Baechtold Thailand had a very positive effect. “I found this country to be really accommodating and the people very helpful. Everyone I met was happy to extend a helping hand.” This sense of accommodation made establishing the Golay Buchel office relatively straightforward and Baechtold ran it for 10 years until he and wife Soipetch Resanond decided to set up on their own in 1993. But the story of his Thai citizenship actually began in the mid-1980s, prior to his marriage. He explains, “In the very early days it was a struggle to deal with the bureaucracy and one day I was informed by the immigration office that I would not be granted a visa and work permit extension and that I should leave.”
When you get off the plane you are hit with the heat and smell, a very particular smell. Even now when I return to Thailand from abroad I get that same sensation.
— Philip A Baechtold
Shocked, Baechtold took stock of his situation. “By that time I was already in love with Soipetch and we planned to get married. A house was also in the works and then suddenly I was being asked to leave the country in which I was trying to build my future. So what could I do?” The answer came from Baechtold’s late father-in-law: first become a permanent resident and then become a Thai citizen. “My lawyer advised me to apply for permanent residency and citizenship myself because the authorities prefer to deal directly with the applicant,” he explains. “My citizenship application was eventually accepted and then everything went quiet. It just disappeared from sight but I was able to get updates on the progress through a good friend who could only confirm where the application was and if things were going well.”
The next thing Baechtold knew he was being called for the citizenship language test, which also comprised a formal interview in Thai. “Of the perhaps 1,000 people applying for citizenship at the time, only four were Westerners,” he recalls. Thankfully he passed and says it was down to years of preparation. “You have to do a lot of legwork in advance, learning Thai and getting your paperwork sorted out. My application procedure started in 1986 but it wasn’t until 12 years later in 1998 that I became Thai.”
The day Baechtold went to the police department to be given the Royal Gazette announcement of his citizenship was a happy one. “That document was the key to unlocking everything else,” says the 65-year-old with a mischievous smile. “Free entry to national parks…and at my age half-price public transportation! Seriously though, it gave me peace of mind. Even today it is a little exotic when a farang produces a Thai ID card and passport and I still get a kick out of the surprise I see on the faces of Thais when I hand mine over,” he laughs.
4/5 Bill Bensley
Celebrated hotel designer and architect William Richard Bensley, more commonly known as Bill, is an American national who has made his home in Thailand. But how did he end up here? “While I was studying for my master’s at Harvard I wasn’t all that inspired by the classes, but I learnt so much from my classmate Lek Bunnag. On graduation day he asked me what I would do next and I told him I had no idea,” Bensley laughs. “He suggested I join him in Singapore. I had thought of backpacking around Europe but I accepted his suggestion and ended up spending a few years in Singapore and Hong Kong before coming to Bangkok. Lek and I worked together for many years and he taught me so much about architecture.”
As for his first impressions of Thailand when he arrived in 1984, Bensley says it was a case of sensory overload. “There is much to remember—vivid colours and the smell of the Orient, the most exotic perfume underpinned by jasmine incense. In many ways that hasn’t changed,” he says. But of all the aspects of Thailand to love, closest to his heart is his husband, passionate horticulturist Jirachai Rengthong. “We met at a bar not long after I arrived in Bangkok and I just knew,” Bensley smiles, “I kept bringing him flowers and within a month we were living together. It was meant to be and 35 years later we are still so happy, especially with our children—Chuck Berry, Bobby Brown, Sammy Davis Jr, Jesse James, Frank Sinatra and Tommy Bahama,” he chuckles, referring to their six Jack Russel terriers.
On citizenship, Bensley admits that he hasn’t gone all the way yet. “However, Thailand is without a doubt my home for life,” says the famed architect who has enough Thai to be able to have fun with the language. “I don’t read or write much, but I speak, joke and even sing in Thai,” he laughs. “Part of the citizenship examination is being able to sing both the royal and national anthems in Thai perfectly, which I can do. And I already have a Thai name given to me by Lek Bunnag. He thinks I’m a dreamer and calls me Subin. The second syllable bin is also how many people pronounce Bill in Thailand.”
Citizenship aside, a major focus for Bensley is his work. “Since coming to Thailand I would say my confidence has changed for the better,” says the award-winning designer of Rosewood Luang Prabang and the Four Seasons Koh Samui among other unique resorts. “I still believe our best work is yet to come. Adding the finishing touches to any project and watching it blossom is one of the most gratifying experiences. I will always remember one of the first interiors I did here. It was for a hotel in Hua Hin and the general manager gave us from midnight to 5am to totally flip a room—not a minute more.”
Bensley has made his home at Baan Botanica, a flamboyantly beautiful house covered in the design column of the February 2020 issue of Tatler Thailand. It is where the equally flamboyant architect-designer plans to celebrate gaining Thai citizenship which, he says, is only a matter of time.
See also: Inside Designer Bill Bensley's Magical Bangkok Home
5/5 Gerd Steeb
Becoming Thai was a life-saving issue for Gerd Steeb, former president of Centara Hotels & Resorts and adviser to the company’s board. “I needed a transplant operation and it was principally limited to Thai citizens and I was only a permanent resident at the time. So I applied for Thai citizenship with the help of my company and successfully became Thai in 2010. I had the transplant surgery done soon after,” he explains. Now a dual national, he says of his mother country Germany, “I have been away from it for over 50 years now, so living there again would feel like being in a foreign country.”
Steeb first set foot in Thailand in 1966, working here for three years before being dispatched elsewhere in Asia as part of the Accor hotel group. “I was at the then Rama Hilton coming from Egypt, initially as a chef in the kitchen before joining the administration and management team,” he explains. Between 1968 and 1969 he went to management school in Germany and this was followed by postings in Singapore, China, USA, Africa and more. “I have worked on all five continents but the country I found most interesting from the start was Thailand,” he chuckles. “My first impression on stepping out of the old Boing 707 on a very sultry April night was one of shock as I was hit by a wave of hot and humid air laced with a certain perfume.”
The experienced hotel administrator has had a long and successful career working for renowned groups such as Goodwood and Accor during his time away from Thailand, but he always knew he’d be back. “In my role at Accor they asked me to do two years helping the Centara Hotels group, and somehow that turned into 30 years.” Seeing Thailand change, in particular the hotel scene, is something that will stay with Steeb. “There weren’t that many hotels in Bangkok in the 1960s,” he says. “There was the Oriental, Erawan, President, Siam InterContinental which opened in 1967 and a handful more. But look at it now.” The German native certainly played his part in that growth, helping to expand the Centara Hotels & Resorts footprint to the point where in 2005 he was appointed president of the company.
I have worked on all five continents but the country I found most interesting from the start was Thailand.
— Gerd K Steeb
Thinking about his Thai citizenship, Steeb is reminded of a humorous anecdote based on his application. “I had to do a lot of things but a particular difficulty for me was having to sing the Thai national anthem, because I try not to sing at all. I know I’m awful at it,” he admits candidly. “Those who were present listening to my attempt were all laughing and the secretary of the board of Centara recorded the whole thing on his phone! He played it at the next board meeting to much mirth,” laughs the 77-year-old.
See also: Harald & Felix Link Are Kindred Spirits