Living in Thailand

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Bangkok is expensive, but cheaper than the West

Bangkok has the largest contingent of foreigners, mainly because it’s 10 times larger than any other city in Thailand and has the most realistic opportunities for work. There are many expats posted here and there are dozens of international schools, a sophisticated environment, big plush shopping malls, expensive restaurants, regular concerts and performances, and a modern Westernised lifestyle. But it is a congested concrete mass that lacks many of the charming characteristics of the country, and can be quite expensive. More on living in Bangkok.

Chiang Mai, in the north, probably offers the best of all worlds. It’s the cheapest main expat location in the country, and has an ‘unhurried’ ancient charm. As many as 40,000 foreigners live here part or full time, taking advantage of the cooler climate, international schools, numerous restaurants, modern malls, and mountain environment nearby. It also thrives on tourism and a handicraft industry providing some foreigners with business opportunities, but others complain that it’s becoming a mini Bangkok with its traffic congestion and rate of building development. More on living in Chiang Mai.

Phuket is another favourite for its beautiful coast, and attracts the jet set who routinely drop half a million dollars on a winter villa at Surin beach. It too has all the modern facilities you would need, but is predominantly a tourist island which makes everything much more expensive than it should be (though still affordable to most foreigners). Few locals can afford to live at the beach, and though some international companies have set up here, most foreign residents either bring their own money or start a business, like a dive shop. More on living in Phuket.

Samui is another island that, in recent years, has attracted a lot of part time residents who have bought boutique villas on the island. Tourism is its only real industry and the rapid rise in the past 10 years has bred an unfortunate mafia element on the island, with property scandals and all. Some things on the island are an outrageous rip off, but it’s generally not as hectically touristy as Phuket. It’s a nice island, and you’ve got more chance of affording a beach view, but the facilities (malls and hospitals etc) aren’t as robust. More on living in Samui.

Pattaya is Thailand’s oldest resort town and now generally regarded as a bachelor punters’ paradise for its large bar girl scene. There are much better beach locations in Thailand but it’s only an hour from Bangkok Airport, and has plenty of facilities, from big shopping malls to multiple golf courses and professional property management companies. Serving the industry of the Eastern Seaboard, it has a very buoyant property market with plenty of condo investment opportunities. Some regard it as sleazy and awful, others feel quite comfortable, and it boasts Thailand’s largest gay crowd. Touristy, brash, but ultimately lively and popular, Pattaya is one of the cheaper choices. More on living in Pattaya.

There are pockets of foreigners scattered all over Thailand, from Songkla in the south to Chiang Rai in the north, and you’ll always find a small local community if you need English-speaking company. Even in Isaan there are scores of men who’ve settled in some rural village with their Thai wife and gone native. It can be paradise or a lonely existence. Ultimately, your dependence on Western company and comforts, budget and preferences for sophistication or nature dictate where you stay.

Visas for Thai expats

Always a sticky issue, visas are essential to staying long term, and the Immigration Department is famous for red tape and inefficiency. Many simply end up staying indefinitely without the correct visa and get away with it due to lax enforcement. Those over 50 can quite easily get a retirement visa provided you can show an yearly income of 800,000 baht, while those with an approved job offer get work permits. Marrying a Thai is another popular avenue (but also with financial stipulations), while many simply do visa runs with renewable non-immigrant visas issued using dodgy paperwork. See details in our visa section.

Teaching English

One of the most popular ways to earn a living in Thailand and enable yourself to live here is to teach English. There is a big demand for teachers both at government schools and in the private sector at language centres or private schools. Depending how experienced/qualified you are and the location, the salary can range from 20,000 to 50,000 baht a month. Even an inexperienced teacher armed with a TEFL certificate can begin on $1,000 p/m in Bangkok, which is a liveable wage.

For sure, teaching is a rewarding occupation, although not for everyone. The Ministry of Education is getting stricter on the stipulations for acquiring a teaching licence class of work permit, and many end up working illegally, doing visa runs. You will need a university degree (one in Education if you are non-native English speaker) and a certificate from one of the many TEFL courses which can be taken in Thailand or elsewhere.

Cost of living

This depends entirely on where you stay and the level of comfort you prefer, but Thailand is generally regarded as cheap and good value relative to similar environments in both developed or developing countries.

It’s one of the main reasons many foreigners choose to stay here, but you could be spending US$5,000 a month for an upmarket lifestyle in Bangkok or get by as a teacher in Chiang Mai on US$700.

Property is the biggest variable, with Bangkok, Phuket and Samui considered expensive relative to Chiang Mai and rural towns, while groceries and every day items are universally cheap (quart of beer in a supermarket: 50 baht, loaf of bread: 40 baht). You could enjoy a posh French meal for under 500 baht or eat street noodles for 30 baht. Transport is particularly cheap, as are Asian manufactured items like computers. Luxury services such as broadband can be poor value due to inefficiency. In each of our location ‘living here’ sections there is more accurate regional cost calculations.

Buying property

If you’re planning to settle here you’ll want to buy property, and there are some excellent choices, providing a living environment that is exceptional value for money in most places. Competent property agents rigorously target the foreign dollar but there are some restrictions. Non-Thais are not permitted to own land, but can buy up to 49 per cent of the units in a condo building.

Many end up buying land in their Thai spouse’s name, even at the risk of ceding control of their assets to a notoriously biased legal system. Companies set up by foreigners (still needing 51 per cent Thai ownership) are also used to buy land and previously property developers used this method to sell freehold property, but a crackdown has resulted, restricting this ruse. The other option is a renewable leasehold agreement.

Building is a popular activity since costs are cheap and the styles and materials are broad, but quality needs to be closely monitored. Furnishing and decorating is likewise very satisfying here. 

Health and safety

Thailand on the whole is a very safe country with little violence or confrontation. Incidence of house breaking, mugging and pick pocketing (outside of tourist areas) are relatively low despite the stark income disparity. However, law enforcement is a weakness in the country and there are plenty of corrupt, greedy and dangerous people (if you cross them), and with money and the right connections you can get away with anything. If you stay out of trouble and keep a low profile as a guest, you’ll be fine, but if you harbour high morals and principals you’ll soon be appalled at what goes on behind the scenes here. See more on safety.

Health wise, Thailand boasts one of the best value health care offerings in the world, with truly world-class hospitals in urban areas at a fraction of the cost abroad. Nurses and doctors are very professional and competent in general and medication is cheap. Private hospitals in major centres cater well to foreigners and the wealthy but many of the state facilities are also decent. Medical insurance is particularly good value and there are various companies such as Expat Health which specialise in those working overseas long-term. Apart from increased danger from bad drivers, there are few other risks here, such as tropical diseases. See more on health.

Meeting people

This is always a interest to foreigners coming to live here since the majority are single men, seeking a Thai partner. Indeed the majority of foreigners end up marrying or living with a local certainly the men who find the ladies very attractive and agreeable.

If you’ve been here a while and actively gotten involved in a social scene you’ll meet plenty of decent ordinary Thais who are generally interested in foreigners, either as friends or partners. For some of the ladies it’s a financial need, others are just fed up with local boys whom they describe as ‘butterflies’. Well, there are plenty of different types and many impatient men fall for bar girls, who are generally in it for the money and often turn out to be problematic.

There are plenty of matchmaking companies here, and all are found online too, though they cater almost entirely to Western men and Thai women. Although many Thai ladies will have you believe that all men in this country are unreliable butterflies, many western women have found themselves sweet and polite partners. If you have the benefit of time, it’s advisable to take the effort to get to know the Thai in general before rushing into anything permanent. There are some stark cultural differences and expectations which can turn an initial attraction into a nightmare, if not properly understood by both parties.

The Thai are generally a very polite, graceful and non-confrontational people, with an important set of etiquette rules based on a complex hierarchy of status. The emerging middle class are more likely to be closer to your own background in social terms, but there is a vast working class out there looking for any opportunity to improve their lot. As a tourist you will mostly come into contact with this group.

On a social level, you can make plenty of Thai friends by getting involved with clubs, work and activities, instead of gravitating towards the expat crowd. Many of today’s educated Thais speak enough English to converse but you might find difficulty finding common intellectual interests. Many foreigners admit that apart from their girlfriend or boyfriend, they end up with few really true Thai social friends. At the executive level in Bangkok particularly, its easier to get along than in the countryside.