In Phuket, a Veteran Finds Peace After Political Conflict

Longtail Boat Phuket
Above, traditional wooden longtail boats in Phuket. "It’s a retirement paradise," says Donnie.|©GAM1983/iSTOCK

"This could mean civil war." After the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, Donnie Byrne’s military unit began to discuss the possibility of the unthinkable: a full-scale conflict between US political parties.

The Capitol attack was followed by the "nightmare" of the Afghanistan extraction. Donnie—a member of the US military for some 22 years—was one of the last service personnel there.

When he returned home to his native Idaho, he found a political microcosm of America. "The town where my parents had lived all their lives—and where I was brought up—had become so toxic. I thought to myself, is this what I’ve been fighting for?"

Years ago, Donnie had been based at Thanarat Camp, a military base just a few hours outside Bangkok. He used to visit Phuket, a ninety-minute flight south, for relaxation and diving. Now that he was on service leave, he thought: Why not make it his permanent home?

While Phuket is a "retirement paradise," Donnie says that it’s essential to be selective about where you settle on the island. Much of the Thai island, which is home to 100,000-plus expats, has undergone rampant tourism development, which has led to overcrowding and high prices. But Surin Beach, where Donnie ultimately moved, has remained the same since the tourist boom of the early 1980s.

Donnie now rents an apartment in a condo building called The Park. "I could have gone cheaper," he says, "but I loved it straight away. The property is peaceful and private and has amazing views of the Andaman Sea."

Surin Beach is only 25 minutes from the major tourist hub of Patong. The beach is shaded by a grove of almond, palm, and dazzling flame trees, and lined with laidback restaurants that serve Thai seafood and cocktails for cheap. The Andaman Sea’s gentle waves lap onto white, powdery sand. Rare, colorful birds dart like rainbows over the warm waters.

I never have to think about the noisy politics I left behind.

Donnie’s daily routine begins with a swim here, followed by an American breakfast, complete with unlimited coffee, for $4.50 at the Surin Bay Inn. He regularly goes diving in the crystal-clear waters, has joined a friendly gym, has taken up golf, and runs with the Hash House Harriers—which terms itself a "drinking club with a running problem."

"Surin’s a perfect spot to keep up my physical fitness, which is important to me," says Donnie.

America may have a long friendship with Thailand, but Donnie enjoys the eclectic mix of nationalities; many North Europeans have retired here. "I also hang out with many Thai friends. When I’m with them, I never have to think or talk about the noisy politics I left behind. I get up in the morning, and I’m greeted with warm, genuine smiles that say, ‘We know what life is really about.’"

He reports that Phuket’s infrastructure is excellent, with supermarkets as well stocked as any in North America, plus excellent medical facilities and dental care at a fraction of Western costs. An extensive bus network was recently introduced, with destinations across the island and to the airport for a flat rate of $3—allowing Donnie to avoid the terribly overpriced taxis that have had a monopoly in Phuket for years.

Plus, Phuket boasts an international airport with flights connecting to almost any major destination in the world; Bangkok, the Thai capital, is only an hour and a half flight away. The same goes for other Southeast Asian destinations such as Singapore, Phnom Penh, and Kuala Lumpur, plus nearby southern Thai islands in the Krabi province.

"I spend between $2,500 to $3000 a month, depending on the number of dives I do," Donnie says. "And I’m living like a king."