Having arrived and fallen in love with South East Asia about two decades ago, William Francis O’Leary survived economic downturns, failed businesses, the Boxing Day tsunami* and skin cancer**.
The father-of-four arrived in Asia and never looked back. Marrying his childhood sweetheart, O’Leary set up home in Thailand in the 80s, way before commercialism hit the islands. Pristine and untouched, the beauty and serenity of Phuket drew him in as one of the first resident foreigners.
As he sits by the poolside of his KL condominium, O’Leary reminisces the early days of his adventures through this weekend’s “Who.What.When.Where.How.Why.” interview.
I’m Bill O’Leary AKA Billo’ and I’m the luckiest Australian Thai Irish citizen in Malaysia.
Born 2nd of four kids in central Queensland in 1961 to an Irish immigrant flying-doctor father and a South Australian nurse mother, I was an impossible child – red-haired and freckled with blue eyes and crooked bottom teeth, I was as mad as a box of frogs and just as difficult to manage. I ate moths, dirt, sugar and snot and ran head first into walls. This head-banging terrified my mother but amused my father. He had nicknames for his kids and mine was ‘The Knocker’. The four of us were on Dad’s roster to fly all over the outback and to the missions helping the Royal Flying Doctor Services. Lovingly known as “Dr. Tim” he was a local legend among the full blood Aboriginals of the outback and Gulf of Carpentaria. Surviving a fatal RFDS plane crash that killed the pilot and his first wife, Queen Elizabeth honoured him in 1960 with a CBE. He died young (62) but taught me to follow my heart and always chase adventure. Also how to drive a boat and pull teeth and give stitches and jab injections. I probably witnessed too much pain, suffering and death from an early age too.
With Dad away from home so much, my brothers and I were sent away to boarding school in Brisbane when I was just 8. It was brutal, terrifying and effected my life’s early journey – but that’s another story entirely.
I graduated teachers college in Brisbane in 1980 with an Associate Diploma in Community Recreation and headed north to the Whitsunday Islands of Queensland’s Great Barrier Reef.
My career in marine tourism started then, operating and managing day ferries and competitive sailing yachts from the main tourist islands in the region. In 1987, after 4 years on Hamiliton Island I took a delivery job on the famous racer/cruising yacht “Stormvogel” after shooting the movie “Dead Calm”. A young crazy crew took six months to sail her across the top of Australia, through Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia to Phuket Thailand.
Back then we were the first private luxury charter yacht in Phuket and the place was magnificient and completely undiscovered. I was blown away by the natural beauty anchoring at the beautiful islands of Phi Phi, Krabi, Phang Nga and the Similans where we were the only vessel in the bay. I paddled my surfboard through the crevaces into the limestone island ‘hongs’ (rooms) of Phang Nga and Krabi long before the sea-canoes found them. Back then Phuket was a bit like the wild west for ‘farangs’ (foreigners) and their charter boats. It was difficult and dangerous, but I loved that. I eventually found work ashore at Amanpuri when it had just opened in 1988. I managed the first luxury charter operations in the region for Amanresorts and worked with them worldwide for the next 20 years.
I married my long time girlfriend Carolyn in 1992 and we have 4 amazing third-culture kids who are currently located in four different countries. We all try to meet back in ‘Pooks’ to watch the fire works every year for Amanpuri’s New Year celebrations. We still call Phuket home but recently I’ve based out of Malaysia working for the Government’s Sovereign Fund Khazanah Nasional on the mega tourism project Desaru Coast that’s so close to Singapore. www.desarucoast.com
My day job is an executive positon with the Malaysian Government Linked Company (GLC) Themed Attractions Resorts and Hotels (***TAR&H). I’m the General Manager for Marine Operations for Desaru Coast project facing the South China Sea. It’s still undiscovered yet so close to Singapore. The destination has seventeen kilometres of beaches but access has always been its problem. We’re in pre-development stage studies to connect via the ocean from Singapore and Indonesia. I’m passionate about helping put it on the world-cruising map by creating super-yacht marinas, a deep-sea cruise-ship call port and most importantly, a CIQ ferry terminal connecting direct to Singapore and Indonesia. It’s a challenge but that’s what drives me these days. I’m convinced once we connect by ferry, it’ll be Singapore’s beach playground within a very short period. It’s so close.
As GM Marine Operations, it’s tough to balance a family of six, manage my other interests and get enough sleep. My motivation mantra is to work hard 8 hours every day for a salary and then put in a few extra hours every night gambling for a future fortune. After a few decades investing in so many crazy ideas, I can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. When you lose your shirt you learn real fast.
To relax I take long ocean-swims, scuba dive, play golf, guitar, write songs and screenplays and lately I’ve taken to painting dead celebrities. Yeah – like a madman. I donate my best works to Phuket Charities for auction at their fund raising events.
Some online here – https://fineartamerica.com/profiles/bill-oleary.html
When my father died in 1987. I took that delivery job on “Stormvogel” from Hamilton Island to Phuket. This was probably the defining moment for me.
I was in the right place at the right time, got lucky and I just went with it. I was 25 and a real redneck. I was terrified to leave my comfort zone but that decision to get myself onto that big sailing boat heading for Thailand made all the difference. I liken it to Shakespeare when he wrote, “There is a tide in the affairs of men, which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.
Omitted, all the voyage of their life is bound in shallow and in miseries”. I’ve seen it over and over when a young person misses the opportunity of their life because they were too afraid to venture out of their comfort zone. All personal growth occurs outside my comfort zone.
Now, older but not much wiser and with a big family, I’m forced to take far less risks. But I do miss it. Occasionally I’ll catch myself in a mirror wearing a suit and remember that young long-haired hippie sailor strumming a guitar and wearing a sarong – and I chuckle. I wish I was what I was when I wanted to be what I am now.
Southeast Asia is where I feel most at home. I’m one of a handful of white Thai citizens but also feel comfortable living and working in Malaysia, Singapore or Indonesia. Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Vietnam and Philippines are exciting but I wouldn’t ever relocate there. I could have lived in these countries when I was younger – but not now. I like my creature comforts and Internet 24/7. The world is shrinking and that’s a good thing for us freethinkers, entrepreneurs and corporations.
The yacht cruising waters around Southeast Asia are world-class, so I’ll stay out here and keep learning all about them. There are still thousands of beautiful anchorages I’ve not yet visited, photographed by drone, drawn charts for or written about. It’s a big bucket list to finish this guide. www.southeastasiapilot.com
Serenity and peace of mind are my most precious commodities. The older I get the less interested I am in seeking the good opinion of others. I think it’s the same for most of us, as we get older, we realise there’s no point worrying about what others think. For me, criticism is just feedback I take under advisement to see if there are any adjustments that need to be made. I don’t take life so seriously or personally anymore and that’s a good thing. I wear it like a loose coat.
There are a few simple rules I’ve tried to live by and instill in my children. They’re easy to implement and provide such wonderful tangible rewards. Integrity is the keystone and the gift we give ourselves. I reckon good humour is God-given and we should all try to laugh a bit more, especially at ourselves.
This life seems such a ridiculous ride with the end laugh always on us. Wearing it like a loose coat, I can shrug it all off and enjoy laughing right back at it. We can be less judgmental and kinder to each other too, if only we make up our minds to be. Just being kind, you know, for no other reason or immediate reward in particular. Just being good – for nothing (in return).
Smiling more, waving them in as they cut aggressively in front of us in the traffic, saying ‘Hello, I’m ___’ to the irritated person crammed beside us on that late-departing AirAsia flight. All these little things we can all do and it will make a difference. Imagine how awesome the world would actually become. So, I try to do a bit more of this stuff every day. It’s simple but not easy and takes a real personal commitment.
I’m big on punctuality. My father used to say, “If you’re on time, you’re 10 minutes late”. But he was an emergency doctor.
I think people who genuinely try to show up on time and do their best at whatever they do will go a long way in life. No matter what I’ve done, I’ve tried to be on time and do the best I can do at whatever job I’m given. Even if it’s cleaning the boat’s toilet, I want to have the cleanest boat toilet on the planet when I’m done. So clean you could eat your breakfast off it.
We attract success by the person we become in the process of constantly striving for self-improvement. So, self-improvement should be every man, woman and child’s main purpose in life. When we move toward self-improvement, our lives change for the better. When we proactively think, speak and act positively and kindly to each other we actually change the molecular reality of our brains. And that tweaks our perceptions and thus our worlds are transformed. Thoughts do become things.
Quantum Physics proves that we constantly bring into existence that which we focus on. So shouldn’t we be taught from a young age to only focus on the good? It’s changing slowly that way – but we still don’t get it. Not yet, anyway. I try to teach my kids to maintain a high self-worth, self-concept and self-ideal, especially when they’ve completely stuffed everything up. In fact, it’s even more important for them at those times. I tell them that my best spiritual and financial growth has always happened when I’ve ventured way outside of my current comfort zones – and then failed.
Yes, failure has always taught me much more than success. When I’ve failed I’ve learned more because I learn at the speed of pain. We can’t avoid the pain but we can find our own ways to learn from it, laugh about it, dust ourselves off, and sing a new song.
Near the end of my amazing mother’s life she got a bit dotty and kept quoting poet Dylan Thomas’, “Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should churn and rave at close of day: Rage, rage against the dying of the light”. I love her for that and think I’ll follow her and do the same. The older she got the more she wore purple polka dots and got ‘dressed up’ for a party. I want to be the same.
But that’s a long way off yet.
Before then, I’d like to have created another thousand paintings, a dozen more screenplays, visited 500 more anchorages and written about them in the Southeast Asia Pilot. I’d like to have written a few more books, done my 3rd Northwest Passage, done another thousand dives, traveled and explored the farthest reaches of this planet and taught my future grandkids how to spit from high buildings, scuba dive and exactly how to put sharks into tonic immobility. So yeah, heaps to do yet.
“You see a thing: and you say ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were: and I say ‘Why not?’” – George Bernard Shaw.
Today, with the Internet, everyone is more and more his or her own brand. We should be teaching our kids how to brand themselves at primary school. Every job, brand and creative endeavour I’m involved in is to help people in their day-to-day lives. All brands need to keep proving that they actually care.
People are becoming more savvy and just don’t believe the corporate and government BS anymore. Look at the Arab Spring. Google and Facebook are more powerful now than we’ve ever imagined and we all need to pull back from them before the privacies and freedoms we fought all those wars for are given up with a click.
My other interests include :-
Galileo Maritime Academy in Phuket is MCA accredited and the best luxury maritime training academy in the world. We train professional mariners all the mandated courses and start young adults lucrative careers on some of the world’s best super-yachts.
Lifestyle Juicery delivers the best fresh less-sweet cold-pressed raw juices to the health conscious hoards living in Bangkok.
Miracles Asia is a luxury substance-abuse rehabilitation centre in Phuket. We nurture addicts and alcoholics to overcome their challenges and realise their full potential in life after recovery.
Southeast Asia Pilot provides specialist cruising information with GPS positions and charts for over 600 anchorages for yachts visiting the region.
My screenplays “The Flying Doctor” and “Tsunami Stories Thailand” may someday become movies that I hope will inspire, educate and entertain.
My paintings sometimes stir emotions in me – so I hope they sometimes stir emotions in others.
*O’Leary’s sea-faring knowledge was integral in saving the lives of his guests at the Amanpuri during the tragic Boxing Day tsunami.
**Read the full story on how O’Leary overcame his skin cancer at home, without surgery and modern medicine:
***”TAR&H serves as a catalyst for the leisure and tourism industry of Malaysia by bringing premier world-class hotels, resorts, golf courses and attractions to the region.
Apart from Desaru Coast – the country’s first integrated luxury destination, TAR&H also owns LEGOLAND® Malaysia Resort – the sixth LEGOLAND in the world and the first in Asia, KidZania Kuala Lumpur & KidZania Singapore – an indoor family education and entertainment centre, Puteri Harbour – a quay side lifestyle retail and family entertainment complex, SANRIO HELLO KITTY TOWN – the first of its kind outside of Japan, Thomas Town – an indoor theme park that features the famous Thomas & Friends® characters on multiple themed rides and Hotel Jen Puteri Harbour at the luxury waterfront of Puteri Harbour, Iskandar Puteri (previously known as Nusajaya), along with the award winning The Datai Langkawi and the first Els Club in Southeast Asia – Els Club Teluk Datai in Langkawi. The Els Club Malaysia has recently opened another 45 spectacular holes in two course both at Desaru Coast.
Working with renowned global and local partners and brands, TAR&H aims to be the leading Leisure & Tourism Group bringing world-class destinations to South East Asia, creating over 15,000 jobs. “
To get in touch with Bill O’Leary, connect with his LinkedIn profile HERE.