Mario Kleff cuts an unconventional figure in the echelons of the real estate business in Thailand. Originally from Germany, the success-story of the man began in Bang Khun Thian, one of 50 districts Bangkok, Thailand.
Thiti Teerachin (Thai: ธิติ ธีรชินทร์). All rights reserved.
Frequently asked questions (FAQ)
Is Mario Kleff's biography book authentic? The biography Mario Kleff was professionally researched and written by Robert Collins and Thiti Teerachin.
How many chapters does the Mario Kleff biography book have? The complete biography book Mario Kleff - Without Fear has over 19 chapters.
Robert Collins alias Colin Roberts is a British writer who lived in Pattaya from 2008 to 2022. During his stay in Thailand, he contributed articles in Rem Thailand. In his past few years, he worked for HSBC (UK), Citiate Publishing (UK) and gained a number of experiences as an editor at Construction News (UK), Cathedral Publishing Services (UK) and The Royal Gazette, a Bermudian, English -language daily newspaper. He was also a reporter at Liverpool Daily Post & Echo and in the West Cheshire Newspapers. Rober Collins died in 2022.
Thiti Teerachin, a Thai national, the director of Wandeegroup Asia Co., Ltd who worked as a co-author with Robert Collins on the biography Mario Kleff: Without Fear. Thiti Teerachin is the copyright owner.
Many thanks to Chellin for your support with these beautiful illustrations.
Preview Mario Kleff biography book: Childhood
Mario Kleff cuts an unconventional figure in the echelons of the real estate business in Thailand. Without money and with just a bamboo hut as a home, he found a livelihood by selling coconuts in a longtail boat on the water channels to Bangkok. Within a few years, he became a millionaire and a recognized architect on the Eastern Seaboard.
Mario Kleff was born November 21, 1967 in Boppard into a poor middle-class family with an aristocratic background and went out to Thailand to find his life path. His motto: "Express yourself without fear."
"Mario has, indeed, a fascinating character; a driven individual who knows what he wants and generally knows how to get it. His sheer will and commitment leads to its own way in privacy and in business. He prefers a companionship of leopards rather than a common family life. He builds up his own cars and motorcycles and stands the conse-quences of an uncompromising and creative lifestyle." Robert Collins, July 16, 2021
Mario Kleff on the way home on the train from Norway
Mario Kleff and Holger Ratsdorf climb mountains covered with snow and ice
Mario Kleff plays with the leopards Fasai and Typhoon in Pattaya
Chapter 1, The Hunsrück
The Hunsrück is a 124-kilometre expanse of rolling hills, low mountains and sweeping forests in southern Germany. It lies in the triangle formed by the confluence of the rivers Rhine and Moselle and is part of the western German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. It stretches from Koblenz in the north to Trier in the south, close to the border with Luxembourg.
Hunsrück is a magnet for nature lovers. Nature-based tourism is widespread. Its many forests are home to red deer, roe deer, foxes, badgers and pine martens while the keen-eyed visitor may even spot the occasional European wildcat or Eurasian lynx. To Mario Kleff, a young boy growing up in the 1970s, it was an adventure playground.
Mario Kleff was born in 1967 in Boppard, a small, sleepy, tourist town nestling on the banks of the Rhine in the northern extremity of the Hunsrück and famous as a wine growing centre. Mario was an intelligent, creative and artistic child. He inherited those characteristics from his father’s side of the family and rapidly learned to appreciate the art and beauty around him with the talent to depict what he saw on paper or canvas.
Boppard was the home of Heinrich and Adelheid Kleff during the early years of their marriage. Heinrich was born into an old, once aristocratic German family in Magdeburg in 1943 while Adelheid Jakobs came from working class roots in Gondershausen, 20 kilometres to the south. The class divide was to become the source of family discontent in the years ahead.
Mario Kleff was the second of Heinrich and Adelheid’s three children. Jörg was born in Boppard in 1965 and Nicole in 1971 in Viersen close to Düsseldorf. Although he has no memories of it, Mario spent the first two or three years of his life living with his parents and siblings. It was a brief period of unity in an otherwise dysfunctional family life. Parental arguments were frequent and as the family gradually grew apart, Heinrich immersed himself in work. Adelheid, a sports teacher at the time, remained with her daughter in Idar-Oberstein where a conspicuous US military presence provided social opportunities for the young Mario during his visits and opened his eyes to American culture.
By the age of five Mario found himself in a new home with his paternal grandmother, Christel, and her second husband, Heinz Hentrich. The country life afforded by the Hentrich family home in the sparsely populated area of Sauerbrunnen opened a whole new world for Mario. The tall trees, the babbling brooks, the winding forest paths and the teeming wildlife struck a chord inside the young boy. He was a loner and there was nothing to distract him from nature. When friends living nearby wanted him to join in a game of football, he preferred to set out alone in the forest. Before the age of ten, he would regularly take his camera with him on walks of up to 20 kilometres, recording on film the beauty that he saw in the trees, birds and animals of the forest. He was at one with nature for the first time.
His grandmother, Christel, belonged to a dying generation; one that valued social standing above all else. She was unable to dissociate herself from her mother’s aristocratic roots. They pervaded her life and, ultimately, destroyed any possibility of family unity that might have existed. She was obsessed with the etiquette of aristocratic living and projected that upon her young charge. But she was educated, well-read and musically gifted; family traits which were passed on to Mario in his formative years. Father Heinrich had been a talented amateur painter and Mario’s great grandmother, Irmchen, an accomplished pianist. During frequent visits to her chateau, Mario used to love listening to Irmchen play and by the age of six he was being tutored in piano and violin.
Like Mario Kleff’s father, Irmchen was also an artist and had taught Mario the rudimentary skills of painting when he was five years old. Before the age of 10, Mario was an accomplished artist, creating pictures of the landscapes and animals of his surroundings using charcoal, coloured pencils, watercolours and even oil paints. He saw beauty in buildings, mountains, rivers and, despite his tender years, also the female form.
Christel’s husband, Heinz Hendrich, was an entirely different individual; a working-class man who provided for an unappreciative wife and unselfishly gave his time to the stepson and step grandson he loved. His marriage to Christel was certainly not a match made in heaven. Bereaved by the war, Christel was on the lookout for a suitable replacement husband, and although Heinz fell short in that requirement, she fell in love with his Teutonic good looks.
Sauerbrunnen was a quiet spot along the four kilometres of road that linked Pfalzfeld and Emmelshausen. And that suited Mario just fine. The rural location nurtured his growing interest in wildlife and quenched his thirst for adventure while frequent visits to his mother in Idar-Oberstein, the largest town in the Hunsrück, gave him an entirely different kind of experience. Known as a gemstone town, Idar-Oberstein’s bars, restaurants, discos and nightclubs provided a major recreational diversion for thousands of US servicemen and civilian staff from the nearby military base at Baumholder.
Located a few kilometers south of Idar-Oberstein, Baumholder had been a small, residential community of fewer than 5,000 inhabitants. But all that changed in the 1930s when Hitler’s Third Reich selected Baumholder as the ideal location for a large military training area as part of Germany’s rearmament programme. So, in 1937 the Nazi government acquired 22,000 acres of land, displacing 842 families from 14 different villages around Baumholder in the process. Construction began after they were resettled in the surrounding area and, by 1938, 20 houses, an officer's camp with post headquarters, a quartermaster depot and separate barracks for each company were completed.
French military units occupied the site at the conclusion of World War II and in 1951 the US military took over, building homes for American families along with schools, churches, clubs and warehouses. Baumholder is now home to the largest concentration of combat soldiers outside the United States with more than 13,000 American soldiers, airmen, civilians, and their family members.
The resulting economic impact on Idar-Oberstein was enormous. US dollars were spent as freely as the prevailing Deutschmark and were widely accepted by local retailers. Americans became major players in the local community, and it was a community that the young Mario liked very much. In sharp contrast to the rustic, rural life he led at his grandmother’s house, Idar-Oberstein offered a taste of excitement and perhaps a glimpse of glamour. Mario revelled in it; so too did his mother. During his frequent visits to her modest Idar-Oberstein home he regularly found himself in the company of Americans, particularly black Americans.
Adelheid Kleff was a hedonist, determined to live life to the full in the Hunsrück’s most cosmopolitan and socially vibrant town. She lived in a modest three-bedroomed house that had been built for US servicemen and their families. It was surrounded by similar abodes inhabited largely by American military personnel, many of whom were black. They mingled freely with the local population and Mario found them engaging.
“Their culture was very attractive to me, and I loved their music,” he said. “I found myself living in the homes of black American families for three or four nights at a time. They opened my eyes and my ears to new music, far removed from the marches of Hitler and Wagner that I had been used to. And they took me to the cinema, which my family had never done. I loved it all and it enabled me to meet a number of fascinating people, some of whom were destined to become famous singers, thanks to the German disco scene which was emerging at that time. As an eight-year-old boy I got to know the Jamaican singer Precious Wilson very well while she was at Baumholder. I used to stand by the stage when she performed as a largely unknown singer in front of no more than a hundred people at a time. When I saw this beauty, I knew that one day I would love to have her.”
Precious Wilson went on to greater things. She had relocated to Germany as lead singer of the pop group Eruption in 1976 and went on to record top ten UK hits with I Can’t Stand the Rain and One Way Ticket during the following two years.
The relationship between Mario’s mother and paternal grandmother was at best frosty and at worst frozen. Christel and her son, Heinrich, were descended from an aristocratic family that had its roots in Prussia and Russia. Adelheid was not. In Christel’s eyes, Adelheid’s working class background marked her out as unsuitable material for Kleff family membership. An uneasy truce prevailed for the sake of young Mario, who took full advantage of the opportunities these two colliding worlds offered. But he was happiest when he was back at his grandmother’s house. There he could indulge his passion for outdoor pursuits, encouraged by Christel’s husband, Heinz, who taught him to shoot, to hunt, to fish and to be self-sufficient during frequent nights spent camping in the surrounding forests.
Mario Kleff was a bright child; too bright for his classmates in the Kant Gymnasium, the school he attended in Boppard. And so he was placed in a higher age group more suited to his heightened academic abilities. But it wasn’t only in the classroom where the young Mario excelled. He was a gifted sportsman with particular talents for swimming, gymnastics and athletics. He learned to swim as an infant and during time spent at his mother’s home in Idar-Oberstein he joined the DLRG, the German Life Saving Association, honing his swimming skills and achieving proficiency standards from the basic ‘seahorse’ through bronze, silver, gold and finally the ‘totenkopf’, or death’s head. As a runner, he competed in the 100 metres through to 5k and as a gymnast he excelled at the floor exercises and the rings. Later, he spent up to two years studying and practising karate. The Kant Gymnasium was a 30-minute train journey from grandma’s house along the 50 kilometres Simmern to Boppard line. This scenic railway meandered through lush forests, crossing two picturesque viaducts on its way to its destination. It was a pleasant and relaxing journey, especially as there were usually fewer than 20 passengers sharing the train’s four or five carriages. The problem was there was no railway station in the vicinity of Mario’s home. The train did, however, slow down as it approached, and Mario and his friends had to be agile enough to leap aboard as it was still moving. It was the same procedure in reverse on the return journey home. It was, as he put it, an adventure in itself.
While every town in the Hunsrück contained a castle, the countryside was also dotted with mansions. The Hentrichs lived in one of them, a 19th century house built in the lavish and ornate Gründerzeit style which was popular in Germany after the Franco-Prussian War in the early 1870s. Mario loved the house. Its sense of history, from its wooden furniture to the paintings hanging on its walls, inspired him to create art. And its well-stocked library was a veritable wonderland of knowledge just waiting to be explored.
Christel and her first husband, Friedrich Kleff, had met when the pair were active participants in the Hitlerjugend, the Nazi party’s youth movement. Friedrich was a member of the Hitler Youth while Christel was a Gruppenleiter, a leader, in its female equivalent, the Bund Deutscher Mädel (BDM), the League of German Girls for those under 18, members of the Hitler Youth were tasked with ensuring the future of Nazi Germany and were indoctrinated in Nazi ideology, including racism. The BDM, on the other hand, used campfire romanticism, summer camps, folklore, tradition, and sports to indoctrinate girls with Nazi principles and to prepare them as future wives, mothers and homemakers in the Third Reich. As a result, Christel and Friedrich became fervent Nazi supporters and remained that way for the rest of their lives. In Friedrich’s case that life was not very long. He subsequently became a Sturmbandführer , or major, in the Schutzstaffel, more widely known as the SS, which became the foremost agency of security, surveillance and terror within Germany and German-occupied Europe. But he died from a shot in the head during World War Two while Christel was pregnant with her second child, Mario’s father.
Mario Kleff recalled: “I don’t remember whether my step-grandfather, Heinz, was of similar opinions or whether he simply went along with it for his wife’s sake, but if a documentary featuring Hitler came on television in the 1980s, he and Christel would stand up and give the Nazi salute!”
The Heinrichs did, however, encourage and satisfy a hunger that Mario Kleff had for knowledge. Unlike Mario’s mother, Christel had had the benefit of a good education and instilled its virtues into her grandson. Her house contained a library, resplendent with a fine array of books, and so Mario became an avid reader, not of the usual fairytale fare of children, but of science, nature, art and music. Even politics. By the age of 10 or 11 Mario Kleff was reading books by Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. For his 11th birthday he received a limited edition book by Richard Wagner, Hitler’s favourite composer, explaining the tortuous process by when he had composed the epic opera Der Ring des Nibelungen , popularly known as the Ring Cycle. Before he was 12 years old, Mario was given a signed copy of a book by the infamous Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda and one of Christel’s favourite authors and politicians. He also had a copy of Mein Kampf, Hitler’s 1925 manifesto which describes how he became antisemitic and outlines his political ideology and future plans for Germany. The books kindled Mario’s interest in the Nazi movement leading him to delve deeper into the subject.
“Between the ages of 10 and 13 I became very interested in the Nazi era and everything that happened in World War I and World War II,” he said. “I devoured all the information I could get. Who was Hitler? What was a Nazi? What did it actually involve? What impressed me were Heinrich Himmler’s military strategies and Joseph Goebbels’ propaganda concept, and as a young artist I liked all the Nazi graphics and symbols. I loved the swastika, the uniforms, the castles and I even loved the women dressed in a military style. I found it all amazing.”
Every activity that Christel and Mario jointly engaged in contained an element of education. There was little or no room for play. With a hankering to rekindle her long lost aristocratic roots, Christel taught young Mario the finer points of aristocratic etiquette, laying down the rules of acceptable behaviour.
“She always thought she was someone special,” Mario said. “My grandmother showed me how to walk, how to sit. There were specific rules on how to eat, how to drink, how to behave. There was no affection. My grandmother didn’t understand what love was. She didn’t even love her husband.”
Her husband, Heinz, was a decent fellow, a tall and handsome man with blond hair and Aryan good looks. He devoted his time to providing for his family and raising rabbits on his large property. But Heinz was a working man. He was a truck driver who came from a working-class background and that did not fit in with Christel’s grand plan for the Kleff dynasty. Despite the fact that Christel was totally financially reliant on Heinz, he was belittled, his background disparaged and denigrated in much the way that Mario’s mother’s was. Yet although he was held in such low esteem by his wife, Heinz had plenty of time for Mario.
Step grandfather and step grandson would regularly take weekend excursions into the Hunsrück, camping overnight at one of its many natural beauty spots and preparing their meals on an open fire. One of their favourite destinations was the Lorelei, a 132-metre-high slate rock on the banks of the Rhine at Sankt Goarshausen. It is steeped in folklore and mythology. For more than 200 years the Lorelei has been a favourite subject of poets and composers, including Shostakovich, Mendelssohn and Liszt. According to legend, Lorelei was a beautiful maiden who sat on the rocks, combing her blond hair and luring distracted seamen to their deaths on the rocks below. The Freilichtbühne Loreley, built at the height of the Third Reich in the 1930s, is an open-air amphitheatre now used for theatrical performances and rock concerts. Perched on top of the rock, it occupies the spot that Lorelei herself might once have done. The Lorelei was a magical place for the young Mario who loved nothing better than to emerge from his nearby tent at around 5am, clamber up the rock face and watch the early morning boats ply their trade between Koblenz and Mainz.
“I loved Heinz,” Mario said. “He had such a big heart and while my grandmother taught me the old classical, aristocratic rules of how to behave in life, my grandfather showed me real life. He showed me the forests, the animals and took me to museums, galleries and castles. It was the family members from non-aristocratic backgrounds who to me were normal people, trying to make my life pleasant.
“Heinz was largely responsible for nurturing my love of nature. I think, ultimately, that created balance with the world represented by my grandmother. The irony is that although she never worked a day in her life and after many years of putting her husband down, she died in poverty, a penniless and bitter woman.” Mario loved the woods, and he loved the aristocratic outlook. He would travel the world in the shoes provided by Christel and Heinz.
Despite her flaws, Christel was a constructive influence on Mario Kleff’s formative years. But she wasn’t the only one. There was also Irmchen, Christel’s mother and a grand lady who was a product of Prussian aristocratic stock. She was an imposing woman who lived in a small, lavishly decorated chateau, populated with uniformed staff, and situated between Simmern and Kastellaun. Irmchen was another who had married beneath her station. Her husband had been a military man who became a successful businessman. He was also a forest ranger responsible for managing the wildlife over several hundred square kilometres of the Hunsrück. Irmchen lived to be 103 and the young Mario had the opportunity to spend time with her and her husband on many occasions. They introduced their great grandson to even more wonders of the Hunsrück, giving him the benefit of their extensive knowledge of the flora and fauna of the region and taking him on visits to many of its vast array of monuments and structures.
Mario Kleff’s father, Heinrich, was most notable for his long absences. Despite that, he and Heinz Hentrich were Mario’s boyhood heroes. Heinrich was the younger of Christel Kleff’s two sons. His older brother, Hermann, had joined the French Foreign Legion and died in Morocco in unknown circumstances. He was an uncle that Mario never met.
Heinrich never knew his father, who died before Heinrich's birth in Magdeburg in 1943. Heinrich studied mechanical engineering which opened the doors to international travel for him in the 1970s. He set his sights on Africa. His more than 20-year love affair with the Dark Continent began in 1973 when he took his first post in Libya. For several years he divided his time between Africa and Germany, but after 1976, when Africa became his principal focus, his visits back home became increasingly less frequent. His early career in Germany was spent largely on construction sites, levelling land in preparation for all manner of civil engineering projects.
Heinrich had a very special skill. He was an expert operator of heavy earth moving equipment; one of the best in Germany. It meant he never needed to look for work, work looked for him. He could, as Mario put it, flatten a hill and leave it as level as the putting surface on a golf course. His work took him to remote areas where he preferred to operate alone, rising at 3am each day and working in the dark to avoid the blistering mid-day sun. He was frequently joined by his son who loved nothing better than to perch himself on a plank next to Heinrich in the single seat cab of a Caterpillar tractor and watch his father dexterously manipulate the controls whilst reconfiguring the landscape.
Mario Kleff was good at learning by watching. Noting the absence of a steering wheel, he quickly realised that the giant machines were manoeuvred by two brake levers, one for the left wheel track, the other for the right. A third, larger lever controlled the speed and a smaller one the three forward gears and one reverse.
“There was no clutch to worry about and although there were three-foot pedals, I was too small to reach them,” said Mario. “However, as they did the same job as the levers, I figured I could operate the machine without them.”
His chance to find out came when his father sat him on his lap and let him operate the largest earth mover in the Caterpillar range, the 49-ton D9. Soon he was competent enough to operate the huge machines without his father’s help and there were times when the pair operated separate tractors simultaneously; one driven by the experienced expert, the other by his seven-year-old son.
However, it wasn’t all plain sailing for the precocious youngster. On one occasion a road construction project required some marshland to be cleared, a job for one of the lighter tractors because of the soft ground conditions. Heinrich set to work and quickly discovered the ground was too soft, even for the lightest Caterpillar, and his machine became stuck in the boggy ground. The more he tried to manoeuvre the vehicle out the more entrenched it became. Heinrich himself was trapped in the cab for leaving. It was to risk being sucked into the swampy ground himself.
Mario, who witnessed the entire episode from the safety of firm ground, was sent back to the deserted camp about a kilometre away to seek help. That help came a short while later in the form of a giant D9 with the boy at the controls. He attached a steel cable to the three-pronged articulated ripper at the rear of the D9 and pulled his father’s-stricken machine out of the marsh. Unfortunately, the novice driver made too sharp a turn in the process, causing the two hydraulically operated arms which raised and lowered the ripper to snap. The damage amounted to several thousand marks.
Facing a bill that amounted to more than a few months of his wages at that time, Heinrich decided to take responsibility for the incident, fearing a bigger problem if it emerged that his seven-year-old son had been at the controls. It was a ploy that didn’t work.
“The owner of the company was a millionaire,” said Mario. “He was a friend of my mother, and he had a young son of his own. I don’t know how he figured it out, but he picked me up and said: ‘You are the son of your father, and you were driving the D9 weren’t you?’ He was more excited than anyone and so he absolved us from responsibility.”
Mario was undeterred by the experience and honed his driving skills on more conventional vehicles in the company of his father. Heinrich was an avid amateur racing driver and took his son along to weekend events in which he competed. These included hill climbs and track competitions, occasionally at the world-famous Nürburgring circuit which also gave Mario the opportunity to experience the thrill of Formula One racing.
Heinrich was a skilled mechanic and converted his Ford and BMW saloon cars to full race specifications. The cars were loaded onto a low loader which in turn towed a camper trailer. The Kleffs set off to race meetings where they made camp along with 30 or 40 like-minded petrol heads. “I loved it,” said Mario “and I made myself useful with a pressure washer cleaning the cars and doing what I could with an oil can. At the same time, I learned to drive a road car under my father’s supervision.”
Heinrich was a large man with a striking appearance. He was strict and unforgiving, angry with and not grateful to his son for the incident with the Caterpillar D9. “The reason was because whatever I did, I was expected to do correctly, and I hadn’t,” said Mario. “He also hated stealing, lying and indiscipline and he had a very quick temper.”
That temper led to frequent arguments with an equally fiery Adelheid, his wife. Combined with heavy drinking, which both were prone to, the marriage was on an unstoppable course towards divorce, which occurred in the late 1970s. “Their drinking was a major factor in their break-up,” said Mario, “yet after the divorce my father never touched a drop of alcohol again.”
Police were called to the couple’s home after one particular heavy drinking session. Heinrich and Adelheid were arguing and there had apparently been an altercation with a third person. Two or three police cars drew up outside the couple’s house. That clearly irritated Heinrich who grabbed a gun and fired several shots at the waiting vehicles. He was arrested but after questioning at the police station was released without charge.
Despite this, Heinrich had been an attentive father. But it all changed when he became an international traveler. After 1976 he spent up to a year at a time in foreign climes, interspersed with the occasional, fleeting visit back to Germany, usually around Christmas. Mario looked forward to his visits and whilst they were brief there were times when he didn’t get an opportunity to see his father at all.
“Of course, I missed my father,” Mario said, “but looking back I don’t think his continued absence damaged me at all. As brief as his visits were, I enjoyed seeing him and I looked forward to receiving the gifts he would bring me, but I accepted it when he had to leave. I remember during one visit, when I was very young, he asked me what present I would like. I said I wanted a dog. Together we visited a number of breeders and eventually he bought me a beautiful Afghan hound. Then as quickly as he arrived, he was gone again.”
As the years rolled on and his visits became even less frequent, Heinrich maintained contact by telephone and often regaled his son with his exploits in the Sahara Desert. Then, when Mario was nine, the invitation came: come to father. For Mario, the lush greenery of the Hunsrück was about to be exchanged for the parched, sun-drenched sands of the Sahara. Africa was calling.
Mario Kleff | Without Fear, Chapter 1-3 and Chapter 8
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