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Larry Cunningham

Larry Cunningham, owner of The Chava resort and Australia’s Honorary Consul in Phuket, retired on September 30 after serving for eight years. He kindly took some time out during his last week on the job to reflect on the highs and lows of this challenging role – with his usual candour and colour.

What were the highlights of your time as Honorary Consul?
There have probably been more lowlights than highlights by the nature of the position, but it’s things like a simple letter, phone call or an email from someone that you’ve helped. Some people are just so ungrateful. You can be out all night to sort out a problem with jet-ski thugs, corrupt police and so on and you never hear from them again.

I once helped a family whose daughter had died after being struck by a rope on a superyacht. About three weeks later I received a letter from her mother, a children’s book author that my own children had read. It was one of those letters that made you stop and swallow. You just think, what type of people are these who have lost their beautiful daughter but can take the time to write a thank you note for the assistance that you’ve given. One of these makes up for the hundred a**holes you deal with.

Which are the most difficult cases you’ve dealt with?
We had the first murder last year with Michelle Smith, the Perth travel agent, being stabbed to death. That was obviously traumatic. There are about 50 Australian deaths a year in Phuket and every one is a story. Nothing matches the emotion of a parent having to identify their dead child. I’ve had to help with that on many occasions.

Tell us about any unusual cases you’ve handled?
Some of the calls I get are just insanity. One time a woman called saying, “You’ve got to help me. We’re flying out a 6 o’clock tonight and I’ve ordered these suits from the tailor and they’re not here yet!” Or someone will call saying, “I’m at the airport now and I’ve got these crocodile shoes and I don’t think I’ll be able to take them into Australia!”

A lot of people come out sexually when they’re here. One guy told me, “I don’t know how to say this, but I have a bit of a problem. I’m not gay, but I’ve woken up in a compromising position with a ladyboy. Do I report it to you?” I told him, no, just wait till you get back to Australia. They’re better equipped to deal with this sort of thing.

You recently received an SMS from a Thai official that was deemed to be a threat. Why did you go public with that?
I didn’t have time to think about it. When it came I had the Phuket News and Phuketwan with me. I'd invited them to come with me to Karon police station where I was assisting with a jet-ski incident, and when we got there she sent me that thing and I said, “Look at this!” If they hadn’t been there I would probably still have gone public with it, though, as it was the best move in terms of protection.
People later asked me, “Aren’t you scared?” And I said, “Not in the slightest.” Had she whispered in my ear I would have been far more concerned. The fact that she sent me an SMS protects me completely.

There’s been talk that your retirement as Honorary Consul was not planned as stated in some newspaper reports. Is there any truth to these rumours?
No, it had been planned for a long time. You get appointed in two-year stints and I'd told them 18 months ago that this would be my last stint. I was supposed to finish in June, and they asked if they asked if I could stay on a little longer, so we agreed on September 30.

Apart from the fact I wanted to spend more time in Australia with my family, the Australian government said earlier this year they'd be opening a full consulate in Phuket, staffed by an Australian Consul General, an Australian First Secretary and Consul and five Thai staff. So I was expecting to be replaced by the consulate and I was looking forward to handing it over. Unfortunately after the budget restraints they cancelled that.

When I was first appointed in 2005 there were 3,000 Australians in Phuket on any one day. Today there are 27,000 Australians in Phuket on any one day including about 2,500 to 3,000 expats either working here or retired.

You’re known for being outspoken about Phuket’s problems. Have you seen any positive changes as a result of your efforts and that of other consuls?
To me so much hinges on what the DSI [Department of Special Investigations] does. That to me really is the crux of the future and whether any real changes will be made. In the meetings we had for a while with the local government, we felt we were being ignored. It was only when we realised that we’re not going to achieve much in Phuket that our ambassadors took things up in Bangkok. They’ve got to do things in a diplomatic way but effectively we’re hopeful something will happen. But my concern is now people are going to be less inclined to speak up based on the threat that I received.

What advice would you give to Australian tourists planning to come to Phuket?
I don’t think it matters. After pushing for several years, I managed to get jet-skis and motorcycle hire on the Australian travel warnings for Thailand. And we say point-blank all the time that Australians coming here must respect the culture. But either they don’t read the advice or they don’t take the advice.

What are your plans for the future? My plan is to live seven months in Phuket and the rest of the year in Sydney. I’m looking forward to spending Christmas with my grandkids. We have a new General Manager here at The Chava resort who's doing a great job. Hopefully the embassy will find an Honorary Consul replacement soon who I’ll certainly be able to assist.

Otherwise, I’ll probably take it easy. The place I'd go if I was 20 years younger would be Burma. I was there in March and have some good backers in Australia who would like to see us develop another Phuket in the Mergui archipelago. Who knows, maybe I’ll get bored after six months in Oz.