The Slyest Geezer
It isn’t just the biggest expat website in Thailand, but probably the biggest site of its type in all of Asia. It boasts a mailing list approaching 300,000 dwarfing all other Thailand expat sites put together. But little is known about what goes on behind the scenes, nor about the site’s owner who avoids publicity. It’s time to take a closer look at the phenomenon that is ThaiVisa.com and its führer, the one known only as “George”.
To understand the beginnings of ThaiVisa.com we have to hit the rewind button and go back to the days when even at peak hour you could get a seat on the skytrain, when Dave The Rave still had hair, and when Amstel and Kloster sat alongside Singha and Chang on the shelves at 7 Eleven.
I took the first year of the new millennium off, spending several months at Union Thai Language School. Thailand’s oldest language school was dominated by Asians and bible thumpers, so Jeremy (* not his real name) was one of just two friends I made in all my time there.
We studied 4 hours a day, from 7:45 AM until midday, and during the short break after each hour of study everyone would pile out of the classrooms in to the central lounge area where a toothless, grinning old biddy sold sickly sweet treats and insipidly weak coffee. Asians outnumbered Caucasians and females outnumbered males. During breaks the Asians would mill around one end, the Caucasians at the other. The Asians would split off in to males and females, the Westerners in to bible thumpers and heathens. Each group looked at others with suspicion. During break time not a lot happened.
One morning I came out of class to see Jeremy pouring over the day’s Bangkok Post surrounded by the Asian contingent. The Japanese, the Chinese, the Koreans along with English Sue and American Tim were all crowded around Jeremy. That was the only time I saw the different ethnic groups together outside of the classroom. I could hear oohing and aahing from across the room. What had grabbed everyone’s attention?
The Bangkok Post was open at a lengthy article and interview with Lars Jansson, a Swede who operated Express Service Sabai Co Ltd, a visa consultancy helping foreigners stay in Thailand. The service allowed foreigners to extend their stay in Thailand without leaving the country (although their passport had to leave).
Most students at Union either came and went on 30-day visa waiver stamps, or applied for a non-immigrant visa at a Thai embassy or consulate outside the country which allowed them 90 days permission to stay.
The ED visa option didn’t exist back then and Union Language School, the country’s preeminent Thai language school, did not offer us any assistance with visas. There were only a handful of Thai language schools operating back then and you signed up because you wanted to learn the language, not because you were looking for an easy visa option.
As an American passport holder, Jeremy received permission to stay 30 days every time he rocked up to the border or airport. If he wanted to stay longer he had to apply for a visa outside the country, which was both time-consuming and costly. The service eliminated the need to exit the country to get a new visa. Passports were sent out of the country and stamped out and back in again while its owner could stay in Bangkok. It cost less than doing it yourself. Jeremy was thrilled!
The service offered didn’t interest me or the Koreans. We were anomalies. Unlike most students who received 30 days entry when arriving at the border, passport holders from our respective countries received 90 days. We had to exit the country every 90 days, but there was no requirement to go to a Thai embassy or consulate and apply for a visa. We could just cross the border, go to duty free, buy a bottle of wine, cross back in to Thailand and the clock started again. We received a visa waiver stamp with 90 days permission to stay and there was no problem at all doing it over and over again.
Jeremy was keen to use the service but I tried to put him off. It just didn’t sound right. Surely what the firm was doing was illegal. But it was featured in the Bangkok Post with a big splash, Jeremy said – how could it not be legit?
I put enough fear in Jeremy’s mind that he asked me to accompany him to the offices of Express Service Sabai Co Ltd on Sukhumvit soi 23, up beyond what was then a sleepy Soi Cowboy. In the single shophouse office we met the affable Lars.
The office was a typical business premises with desks, telephones, fax machine and whatnot. There was a large sign outside and government licenses on the wall. It looked like the real deal.
We met the man featured in the article, Lars, who struck us both as professional. Any concerns Jeremy had – all put in his head by me – were instantly allayed. Jeremy handed over his passport and a few thousand baht, and was told to come back a few days later when his passport would be ready for collection.
We probably spent about 5 minutes with Lars who I remember as friendly, helpful, tall, bald and with a cone-shaped head. He was over 6 feet tall, of average build and I would have guessed around 40 – 45 years old.
A few days later Jeremy collected his passport. Everything went like clockwork. The passport had taken a holiday to Malaysia and came back to Bangkok. With a new set of border stamps, Jeremy could stay in Thailand for another 30 days.
I accompanied Jeremy when he dropped his passport off but not when he collected it. He later told me that there was a stack of passports there. Lars was doing a great trade!
Jeremy used Lars’ service a few times without problem. But then one day later in the year he went to collect his passport and got the fright of his life.
The front window of the office was smashed and there was blood on the pavement. Standing outside, Jeremy said that it looked like the office had been turned over. No-one was there. Jeremy called the company’s mobile phone number. It was dead. Jeremy did what so many farangs in Thailand facing a predicament do: he turned to me.
Jeremy still couldn’t see that the whole operation was obviously dodgy. It could not possibly be legal, I told him, but he kept coming back to the professional manner of Lars, the fact that the business was operated from an office and what really sold him was that it had been given a big splash in the Bangkok Post.
Jeremy had 3 options. The first – and the option I recommended – was to go to his embassy and be honest about what had happened, and ask for their advice. He’d seen bundles of passports there on his various trips to the office so he couldn’t be the only one caught out. The second was to go to the police and plead ignorance – but that was risky and came with uncertainty. The third option was to wait, do nothing and hope for the best. At the end of the day Jeremy wanted to stay in Thailand and he didn’t need his passport at that time so he decided to not to do anything. It would turn out to be the right option.
A few days later Jeremy was contacted by a Thai woman who had his passport. He didn’t know who she was, but she delivered it to him. The passport had a new stamp in it. Jeremy had another 30 days. From then on Jeremy would accompany his passport out of the country on visa runs. Jeremy never did have any problems due to the illegal visas he got through Lars and the last time I bumped in to him, a couple of years ago, he was still living here.
The popular Thailand expat forums at that time were Nanaplaza.com and Nanapong.com, both of which were very much nightlife-focused, a reflection of expat society in the day. The incident at the visa shop didn’t make the newspapers but it did make the forums.
Some said there had been a fight between Lars and the lady he worked with, who it was assumed was his wife. Others said that one of the dodgy visas Lars had arranged was picked up by an observant Immigration official. So the story goes, an observant officer noted someone had a visa issued by a consulate in Australia which has long been known as a soft touch – but there were no entry and exit stamps for Australia in the passport. Upon questioning, the passport holder admitted that he had never been to Australia and the visa had been procured through Lars. Apparently Lars was visited by Immigration and Police, the operation closed down and he was deported and blacklisted from ever returning to Thailand. That’s all plausible, but it doesn’t explain the broken windows, the shop being turned over and the blood outside.
At this point it should be pointed out that I have no confirmation that Lars was ever charged, prosecuted, that it ever went to court or even if he was visited by police. Neither can it be confirmed that he was deported or blacklisted – although that is what you would expect to happen.
What is known is that the office closed, the visa service stopped and Lars disappeared. Forum posts suggested Lars went to Malaysia where he was working on a new project, EThailand.net.
The whole incident didn’t attract that much attention; dodgy visa dealings were de rigueur back then.
At one time it was estimated there were 20,000 foreigners in Thailand who had used such visa services. A guesthouse in Nana Plaza providing visa services was the preferred agency for bar owners and managers. There was the Aussie whose nickname featured two “V”s who was perhaps the best known visa agent and a favourite for teachers whose schools did not get them a blue book. There was The Wall Pub on lower Sathorn that offered everything from food to laundry to visas. No doubt there were many more. Some even openly advertised in the Bangkok Post. But at the end of the day, it was illegal. Legal visas obtained legally, some called them.
The logistics of these visa service operations were complicated with many people involved, meaning many people on the take. Let’s say an American in Thailand wanted a non-immigrant visa. He remained in Thailand but his passport had to be stamped out of Thailand, and then sent to a friendly embassy or consulate abroad which processed the visa application. The embassy or consulate had to be either incompetent or, more likely, was willing to overlook the fact that the passport did not have an entry stamp for that country. The visa was processed and the passport sent back to Thailand. Someone at some border point stamped it back in to the country and activated the visa. The number of grubby hands involved was numerous.
Back to the present day, I thought it would be fun to do a Whatever Happened To….? article on expats from my early years and thought Lars might be fun to profile. So, just what did happen to Lars? Where did he end up? What I stumbled upon is as amazing as it is shocking as it is, in some ways, for want of another word, well, impressive!
When I started researching what had happened, I came across old posts from Lars talking about the service. And in some of these posts he listed a website for service. The domain name? ThaiVisa.com.
Screen capture of a post from 1999 showing the connection to ThaiVisa.com.
Could there be a connection between Thailand’s largest expat forum, the sanctimonious, holier-than-thou, more-Thai-than-the Thais ThaiVisa.com and, ironically, a company which procured dodgy visas for expats and whose owner was – it is believed – deported and blacklisted from Thailand?
Little is known about “George”, the owner of ThaiVisa.com. Few people have met him. He is the mystery man who never attends ThaiVisa.com events or parties and who shuns publicity. In a country where expat society is very social, why does “George” avoid the limelight when he has been so incredibly successful?
I know many who have had dealings with George but few have actually met him in person.
There are two people who have told me about “George” over the years, both long-time readers who are neighbours of his in Hua Hin. I fired off an email to each of them.
One neighbour described “George” as a bit of a character who eschews the ways of his homeland. His appearance is sloppy, he is often unshaven and looks unkempt. The other neighbour reports that “George” has alcoholic tendencies and is quick to anger. That neighbour attributes the police callouts to his house and fights (usually vocal, at least once physical) with his on again / off again wife as most likely due to alcohol. Once the sun is high in the sky, a glass of beer or wine is usually within George’s reach.
Next stop was the Bangkok Post archives. I wanted to find the article from 2000 when the Bangkok Post profiled Lars and his dodgy visa service. Unfortunately, the Post’s website does not allow online searches going back that far unless you pay. I was happy to cough up the $$. An email to the digital sales department bounced. Typical Thailand. An email sent to another email address at the Post has yet to be answered, and I guess it probably won’t be until after Songkran.
I spoke with a friend who has contacts at Immigration and called in a favour. He used his contacts and I was able to source a photo of George. It wasn’t recent, but any doubt I had was gone. I blurted out to myself, that’s Lars!
George, the owner of ThaiVisa.com, Thailand’s largest expat website where moderators and prominent posters have an utterly unforgiving and sanctimonious attitude towards anyone whose visa status is in any way questionable, is Lars, the owner of Express Service Sabai Co. Ltd, the company which arranged dodgy visas for foreigners wishing to stay in Thailand!
Had Lars managed to get around being blacklisted from Thailand – if indeed he was blacklisted – by simply changing his name?
At this stage it should be noted that “George”‘s real first name is NOT George at all. I have no intention of publishing his name, the photos I have procured of him from his neighbours and other contacts, nor reveal any other details about him.
ThaiVisa.com is not just the most popular expat discussion forum in Thailand, it is the biggest forum of its type in, I believe, all of Asia. It might just be the biggest expat forum in the world. It’s an impressive operation pulling in an estimated million baht per month, most of which is profit. Its Google Adsense income alone is said to be well north of $10,000 per month. There have been rumours over the years about the site being sold and at one stage it was rumoured “George” wanted 90 million baht for it.
ThaiVisa.com is many things to many people, but what it is not is an advocate for the rights of foreigners in Thailand. While I am loathe to criticise another website – every website is free to operate how they wish – the way ThaiVisa.com masquerades as a community acting in the best interests of foreigners in Thailand is a bit much. And what really irks is the actions of the little Hitlers who run the site, the moderators who act with an iron fist, sometimes banning users for the most innocuous reasons.
Let’s take a post made about the Santisook Dog & Cat Rescue Centre in Chiang Mai. A user posted about this wonderful organisation and how it is very grateful for cat and dog food donations. Not money, but cat food or dog food. There wasn’t even a link to the organisation’s site, something ThaiVisa.com does not allow. The post was taken down by one of the moderators and the poster received a warning that he had breached the rules by soliciting for donations. He tried to send a message direct to “George” but that didn’t work. He tried to appeal to the moderator and was banned for criticising a ThaiVisa.com moderator, a very serious taboo!
ThaiVisa.com’s moderators have a long history of being heavy-handed and many act like slavemasters, treating users with contempt. Posts are deleted and accounts are banned if a user touches on anything considered questionable, which is a joke when you consider the forum’s owner was involved in visa fraud. It’s the haughtiness, the sanctimoniousness and the holier than thou attitude that has turned some off the site.
ThaiVisa.com is so dominant that the attitudes of the moderators permeate every corner of the country and some weak-minded foreigners adopt them. Is ThaiVisa.com partially responsible for the increasing prevalence of farang apologists? I often visualise a cartoon with a bunch of farangs bending over a barrel with a ThaiVisa.com moderator instructing them to drop their draws around their ankles as Somchai stands behind them with an evil grin.
The sanctimoniousness of some moderators is all the worse when you learn about their respective pasts. I’ll save the blushes and humiliation by refraining from identifying anyone, but a couple are worth a mention. One ThaiVisa.com moderator used to own and operate the website www.sextours.com. I know this because that site had copied and pasted some info from this site a very long time ago. Before parting with the domain name for $USD 2x,xxx, this fellow who went on to become a ThaiVisa.com moderator was a sex tour operator, amusing given ThaiVisa’s anti-nightlife stance. He was banned as a poster a couple of times but created new usernames, returned and eventually became a moderator.
Another user worthy of mention is dr_Pat_Pong who was given a most fitting title, honorary member. Fitting because for many years he was a Thailand honorary consul, oversaw a full service consulate and as an honorary consul, he signed off on visa applications. That made him a great person to know for someone in the dodgy visa business. Rumour has it that this honorary consul resigned because he is embroiled in a dispute with “George” over a business relationship that dates back 15+ years. It is alleged that back in the day the consulate received passports direct from Lars and whichever visa was requested was issued. Needless to say, the consul received a kickback for every visa processed. The relationship soured and when “George” threatened exposing him he resigned and must have been left wondering about what he had dunn. It’s amusing that someone who served as a Thailand honorary consul for so long and who was such a prolific poster (he made in excess of 30,000 posts) on ThaiVisa.com did so with a username celebrating the country’s most infamous red-light area.
In the business world, you hear plenty of ill talk about “George”. Granted he is a smart guy good at making money, but at the same time he is known for cutting people off at the knees in business dealings and being a bully. There have been countless disagreements over the years and he has a court appearance in June over a business dispute, a hearing which promises to attract curious foreigners to the gallery.
Andrew Drummond broke the news that “George” is facing legal action and has to report to post bail in June. Can “George” expect to be finger-printed? Does the system match new fingerprints with those already in the system? If it does, will the police station light up like a Christmas tree as it is discovered that “George” is Lars – and Lars – it is believed – is blacklisted! Presumably “George” was finger-printed when his visa service was raided all those years ago, or has this already been….what’s the correct term….sorted?
Is “George” a bully in the cyber world too? One ThaiVisa.com moderator, furious that he was promised shares in a company which unbeknownst to him was worthless in return for moderating, spoke on the promise of anonymity. He alleges “George” has a number of different usernames and recent posts from a Hua Hin IP address attacking Thailand’s foremost investigative journalist, Andrew Drummond, are the words of you-know-who.
Visiting ThaiVisa.com is not a fun experience and time on the site feels like being in a schoolyard with a bunch of spotty-faced teenagers bickering and talking shit about stuff they know little or nothing about. The sad part is that ThaiVisa.com was the one and only vehicle which could have been an advocate for the rights of Westerners in Thailand. Alas, it is not to be. Bickering, tyranny and lording it over the community is the preferred option. Talk about a sly geezer.
But ultimately “George” deserves the plaudits. That someone who it is believed was not just deported from Thailand, but also blacklisted from the country after operating a business which deliberately sought to circumvent Thailand’s immigration laws – yet manages to return to the country he is banned from and build up and operate the best-known, highest traffic and most profitable expat website in all of Asia – making an estimated $30,000 a month – is an amazing achievement. It’s just a shame he is such a tyrant and that his attitude has been adopted by the forum’s moderators and some of its users.