Deciding where to settle

Like most first-time visitors to Thailand, I started out in Bangkok.

Bangkok is a massive, metropolitan city. I didn’t always like to be too close to the downtown area where most of the expats lived, because I wanted to get to understand Thai people and culture. So every year, I moved to a different area in Bangkok, each time moving a bit further out. In the process, I got to know the city extremely well. Better than many of the local Thai people in fact.

In Europe, primarily because of my work as an independent consultant, I lived in big cities and small towns and, even occasionally, in small villages – until I realized that although I love the beauty, tranquility and fresh air of living in the country, I need the sophistication of a proper-sized city where I can meet and work with people and make friends. Some people like the isolation (and intimacy) of a small village, but even when I had made friends with some of the villagers, I still felt a bit lonely living so far away from a (cosmopolitan) city.

But living in Bangkok was not really what I wanted either. Like any big city, it’s relatively expensive. Rental costs are comparable with those in many European and American towns. And it’s tough to make a living if you run a small business in Thailand. Unless you are earning a decent income, usually by working for a large international corporation, you have to live in the outskirts of the city, and spend a lot of time travelling every day. And, like any big city, it’s a good 2-hour trip into town – so you try not to go in too often during the week. Nevertheless, if you earn at least $3,000 a month then you can easily afford to live in or near the downtown area (in a small condo, say, for around $1,000 per month) and enjoy a wonderful life.

My management-training business in Bangkok wasn’t so successful, primarily because companies in Thailand don’t really see the value in management or staff training. So – partly because I needed a quick and easy way to learn Thai, and there weren’t already any decent courses available – I devised the Rapid Method to learn Thai that you can follow while still leading a busy, hectic life.

It’s a minimalist approach to learning with a bizarre way to simplify and remember the essential concepts you need to know in order to read Thai. Once you can read then you can immediately and continuously absorb vocabulary direct from your surroundings. It’s a far more relaxing and enjoyable way to learn the language than studying arduously from text books or in a language class.

Most of the tourists and first-time expats who come to Bangkok take advantage of the relatively cheap and easy sex that’s available. But this wears off fairly quickly (for most people) and one soon realizes that ‘easy women’ is a relatively small and unimportant aspect of Thailand that is blown up out of proportion by the media. (If you look at the statistics, USA has a relatively high per-capita rate for prostitution at 32 per 10,000 people… only a few countries are higher, 44 for Thailand, 49 for Germany, 85 for the Philippines, 100 for Luxembourg and 120 for Venezuela; but for most European countries including UK it’s only 10-12; and surprisingly just 5 for France.) If you want to know more about this fascinating subject then read the article, sex and relationships in Thailand.

I then decided, after five years, to find somewhere else in Thailand to live. I had already explored the possibility of moving to some of the neighboring countries: Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos seemed to be still too backward for my liking, Malaysia was a hot, boring Muslim country that might be okay if you enjoy rugged nature and confine yourself to the British Colonial lifestyle of Kuala Lumpur. Singapore was clean, organized and reasonably exciting (if you enjoy social activities and sports), but expensive; and the Philippines seemed too chaotic. China is too big and dirty. Hong Kong is exciting, but also grimy and about as expensive as Singapore (even more so if you want to live in a beautiful, green suburban area).

Japan would have been a good choice and I seriously considered moving there. One can live relatively cheaply in Japan, if you budget carefully and ‘go native’. But the initial move would be very expensive, hardly anyone speaks English so you’d have to learn Japanese as a priority, and the opportunities for living and working in Japan are quite limited.

I explored other parts of Thailand, with the view to finding a good alternative to Bangkok as place to settle more permanently. I considered Phuket because it’s a touristy, seaside island where nearly everybody speaks English. But it’s a relatively expensive place to live and, unless you love the sea, I found it a bit boring. I do love the sea, having grown up in Cape Town, but because there isn’t any surf along any of the beaches around Thailand, I don’t find the tranquil seaside life here interesting at all.

I rejected Hat Yai in the south as being too out of the way, too small and too disorganized. The other islands like Krabi or Samui seemed like a nice idea, but I had had enough of living in small, isolated villages with no shops and I had no intention of living a lonely life away on an island with dodgy internet connections and expensive flights to the mainland. Maybe this is precisely what you do want, in which case any of these larger islands would be ideal for you. But not for me.

I also looked at Hua Hin. This is a large, pretty seaside town that is developing quite quickly. It’s becoming more and more popular amongst the expats as a viable alternative to Phuket or Pattaya. The social life is kind of limited to meeting up with friends for dinner or drinks at the bars. It’s cheaper (but quickly becoming more expensive) to live in and is within striking distance of Bangkok – two hours by bus or car.

The other popular spot is Pattaya, with a reputation for being quite sleazy. This is actually part of a chain of industrial-type towns that sprawl for about 40 miles along the eastern coast of Thailand. The hinterland consists mostly of automobile-related factories. The residential areas and shopping centers are also spread out along the coast, so you really need to have a car if you choose to live here. Pattaya is famous (or infamous) for a small street, called Walking Street, where you can choose from hundreds of inexpensive prostitutes (mostly from poor rural Isaan) parading themselves or sitting demurely in large bars facing the street. This small stretch of road along the beach is what gives Pattaya its sleazy reputation, along with the fact that a small but powerful mafia operates here. Many tourists get scammed here, usually when renting a jetski or car or motorbike, and neither the police nor local government will intervene (except maybe to assist the con artists). Under no circumstances should you rent a jetski in Pattaya (or anywhere else in Thailand for that matter), no matter how fun it looks!

Many expats indulge in the sex trade (there are common scams to be aware of here also) and then settle with a girl who moves in permanently for a small ‘allowance’ of around $300 pm. That’s usually where the trouble begins, but if you approach the arrangement with an open mind and don’t have expectations about her being studious or intellectual or an exciting conversationalist (and learn to recognize the typical scams) then you can have an enjoyable relationship and live a comfortable life in or near Pattaya.

And if you have a decent income then Pattaya can provide a very enjoyable lifestyle. There is a huge variety of high-end resorts and restaurants and sporting activities. It can be a wonderful, hedonistic city if you can afford it!

Despite the problems and sleazy reputation (or perhaps because of it), the Pattaya region – usually known as the Eastern Seaboard – is the most popular choice for expats to live, after Bangkok.

The other places I considered in the eastern part of Thailand were Rayong (a sleepy, but clean and quiet seaside town) and Isaan (the vast agricultural heartland of Thailand, where nothing much happens). Nevertheless, these areas are developing rapidly, with sophisticated shopping malls and facilities that are quickly making the towns more exciting and convenient places to live.

But then I went to visit Chiang Mai in the mountainous region in the north of Thailand. I had left it for last, thinking it to be a small, sluggish town occupied by boring old retired people.

What a pleasant surprise to find that it’s actually a rapidly-growing city with at least four major universities, and plenty of young students, major shopping centers, lively nightclubs and music bars, a cornucopia of good restaurants and coffee shops that weren’t at all expensive – and the old farts I met were actually quite interesting people! Not to mention, there were plenty of ‘ordinary’ people around my own age who are still actively working in a professional capacity of some kind – usually teachers, writers, programmers or consultants, or brokers, or involved in an export trade. You can also meet up with thriving community of “digital nomads”; and new-age “hippies” are fairly well-established here also, with dozens of yoga centers and vegan restaurants.

There is also plenty of sporting activities within easy reach from anywhere in or around the city, including a few obscure sports (for Thailand anyway) like karate, ice hockey, street hockey, tennis, squash and even wakeboarding and horse-riding. The popular sports are golf, volleyball, soccer/football, taekwondo and table tennis.

As for traffic jams – well, nothing like in Bangkok or London or Paris – but actually a good sign of a bustling, vibrant city. Unfortunately, it is creating a serious pollution problem in the center of the city; so it is perhaps better to consider living slightly outside the city.

It turns out that Chiang Mai is rated as one of the top places in the world to live or retire by Yahoo Finance and HSBC [opens in a new window].

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The local people seem remarkably more open and friendly than Bangkok or Phuket or Pattaya. On the whole, they seem genuinely more caring and helpful, and remarkably honest. There were exceptions of course but I often met people who put in a little extra effort to ensure that I was satisfied with the service they provided. And I made friends with extraordinarily generous Thai people who did favors or gave me things or cooked me dinner that might have been quite expensive relative to their tiny incomes.

I went back to Bangkok and informed my family that we were moving to Chiang Mai. We decided to spend a month in Chiang Mai as a family to explore the region and find a place to live. We stayed in a guesthouse in the city and then scoured the area, exploring the main, popular spots of Chiang Mai as well as the hidden backwaters where the local Thai people live.

I discovered many interesting places to live, but in the end we settled on a perfect spot in a small country village. Most other people would probably prefer to live in or very near town.

If you are thinking of retiring in Chiang Mai and are looking for somewhere to stay long-term then I can advise you about the various locations – perhaps even to purchase or build your own home.

We returned to Bangkok, started packing our belongings and moved back to our new home in Chiang Mai a month later.

We’ve been here for seven years already and we’re loving it.