We have today signed a lease for a house in Chiang Mai, conditional on my redundancy going through as planned. This is the first major action I’ve taken to make a permanent commitment to Thailand. It marks a change from focussing on the what ifs, should I, shouldn’t I live here to deciding this is it and getting on with the logistics of settling in.

I thought I would use this opportunity to not only show you where we will be living but also to cover some aspects of housing here from construction techniques to the range of Moo Baan (estate) houses available.

It’s a very long blog so get a drink and enjoy.

BUILDING

I have been watching a couple of houses being built locally and it is interesting, to me anyway, to see the different techniques being used here when compared to building a house in Australia.

There is not a lot of recognition of ecological outcomes here (generalisation). Entire blocks are cleared and sometimes large quantities of soil trucked in to raise the level of the building site to protect it from flooding.  Gaun tells me that in Isaan the soil is often taken from rice land where the owners are say building a dam and have excess earth. A truckload moved locally will cost about $7.00.

Of far more importance than nature is the potential impact on phi the spirits or ghosts who inhabit the land and might be upset with the interference. The solution is to provide the spirits with alternative accommodation to encourage them to relocate and not to interfere with the new residents. A spirit house is what’s needed and there are specialised roadside shops everywhere selling them:

Step 1 to Thai building - buy spirit house

Step 1 to Thai building – buy spirit house

Step 2 - Install spirit house in corner of new building block

Step 2 – Install spirit house in corner of new building block

Step 3 - keep the ghosts fed and watered.

Step 3 – keep the ghosts fed and watered.

Once the phi are happy it is time to start building.

The two houses I am watching being built are of the concrete pier design, which seems to be very common. In the second picture above you can see that the piers are actually the first part of the building to come out of the ground. The concrete floor is then prepared. You can see that the house site has been raised from the surrounding land.

Floor shell prepared.

Floor shell prepared.

I am not sure why the floor has been built as just a concrete shell here rather than being fully poured. This house has come to a standstill so the mystery remains.

The pier “system” is a very easy way for a pretty unsophisticated workforce to build a basic house quickly. However it does then limit the size and location of your rooms if you use the gaps between the piers to determine where the walls will be. Otherwise, and I have seen this often in photos, you end up with a pier in the middle of your lounge room!

Tastefully hidden concrete pier. Just turn on lights when walking at night.

Tastefully hidden concrete pier. Just turn on lights when walking at night.

The roof then seems to go on next, which is different from Australia where we would put up the walls after the slab. This is the other house I am following. A split level with a deck out the back on the edge of a fast running stream it has potential to be a nice home.

I am thinking that maybe as it is either very hot or very wet and often both in Thailand, building the roof give some protection to the building site. There may be other reasons.

Steel roof. Good idea considering the number of bugs here that could eat wood.

Steel trusses. Good idea considering the number of bugs here that could eat wood. I believe it’s cheaper too but will advise when I build my place!

Floor, roof and then fill in the sides.

Floor, roof and then fill in the sides.

If going “up” then scaffolding is bamboo. Looks scary but must do the job.

Yes. That is supposed to support a concrete second floor.

Yes. That is supposed to support the pouring of a concrete second floor.

I will keep you up to date with progress on these two projects in further building blogs.

Living in a Moo Baan

A Moo Baan, which translates to “village” in Thai (Baan means house), are a popular form of living here for both farang and Thais in the major centres. They are usually gated communities of houses and can vary from very simple Thai dwellings to large expensive, upper class developments. The facilities can vary also from nothing to full security, well maintained landscaping, swimming pools, shopping and restaurants aimed at the foreigner population and middle class Thais.

Doi Chang coffee cafe in Laguna Moo Baan.

Doi Chang coffee cafe in Laguna Moo Baan. The cafe overlooks their large swimming pool complex.

We drove to Chiang Mai on Wednesday to spend three days focussing on the housing market there and looking at some of the offerings within the price range I had in mind.

On the Wednesday we called in to have a cuppa and lunch with Mark, an English guy I met last time we were in Chiang Mai. He is living in a small Moo Baan just off Highway 118, the road between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. It is a mostly Thai estate with smaller single level dwellings. Mark is renting a two bedroom place which he has made very homey both inside and now working on establishing the small garden, which had been untouched for ages.

A mostly Thai Moo Baan. Very small blocks and modest houses.

A mostly Thai Moo Baan. Very small blocks and more modest houses.

A two bedroom house here without air conditioning might cost you 5,000 THB ($170 a month). Add another $30 a month for air cond.

On Thursday we spent the day driving around the Northern side of Chiang Mai mostly in an area called San Sai. We called into a number of Moo Baans to see what was available and it was a pretty mixed bag. Chiang Mai is developing quickly and there are lots of new developments being built many with nothing much to commend them other than they provide basic accommodation.

This is a larger estate of newly built smaller houses. As with any new development it is very stark. Over time it may soften with greenery although the Thais aren’t great gardeners. It looks as if the Moo Baan has planted out some trees. Nice wide roads that put our Australian new suburbs to shame.

New estate.

New estate.

A basic Thai house. Very small rooms and nothing fancy. Does the job though.

A basic Thai house. Very small rooms and nothing fancy. Does the job though.

Many Thais would be very happy to live here. I wonder if our kids would as a starting point? No family room, en-suites and fancy kitchens. However you could probably pick up one of these for around $30 – 40,000! A bankcard purchase!

Now this is a kitchen that won't break the bank.

Now this is a kitchen that won’t break the bank.

Inside kitchens can be almost non-existent. Thais will often have an outside, undercover kitchen with a two burner gas stove for wok cooking. Not much else needed for their style of eating.

Shows the Thais love of fancy fences.

Shows the Thais love of fancy fences.

How many of our kids would be willing to start this small?

Good things can come in small packages.

Some of the Moo Baans exhibit the very worst of modern development. Rows of identical tacky boxes. I couldn’t think of anything worse.

Little boxes. Deadly.

Little boxes. Deadly.

The land sizes here are often very small, even worse than some of our new developments. The Thais do as we do by building two story to maximise the land use.

A barren wilderness. Might be OK in a few years.

A barren wilderness. Might be OK in a few years.

Matching satellite dishes.

Matching satellite dishes.

Took the following photo in a mostly Thai estate. Loved the front yard lake approach.

Saves mowing. Often ponds here are used to cultivate fish either for domestic use or for sale.

Saves mowing. Often ponds here are used to cultivate fish either for domestic use or for sale.

Large and empty. Big houses often badly designed and built. They look old after a few years. Thais are great on building impressive structures but they then often don't maintain them.

Large and empty. Big houses often badly designed and built. They look old after a few years. Thais are great on building impressive structures but they then often don’t maintain them.

Every blog has to have a photo of me! So this me conducting house inspections.

Every blog has to have a photo of me! So this me conducting house inspections.

I realise that I have been rather negative with my comments on Moo Baan living so far. Home is where you can close the door on the outside and many of these estates certainly provide that at an affordable cost, either renting or buying. Our viewing was totally random within a limited time-frame. A more structured and informed approach would show many estates that matched my expectations more closely I am sure. One such example follows.

Our New Home

In preparation for our visit to Chiang Mai I had spent ages on the net looking at the various real estate sites. These are mostly geared to farang with prices to match. I suspect Thais have a word of mouth system for buying/renting places outside our more impersonal approach. This was exampled when Gaun chatted with the cleaning lady at our guesthouse who, once she found why we were there this time (usually the dentist!), came up with a friend who had a three bedroom place she wanted to rent to a foreigner. It sounded nice but once the owner had been contacted we were told that it had been recently rented out.

On the Friday I had arranged to view a couple of houses in the morning and a few more in the afternoon with another agent. The morning left me feeling slightly depressed because even allowing for my more modest standards (as a soon to be retired man) I just couldn’t think of living in either place. Real estate photos are as good at hiding the truth here as they are in Australia.

In the afternoon we met up with Stefan, a German guy running a real estate business here after the collapse of the market in Europe. He specialises in renting/selling in a large Moo Baan called Land and Houses Park on the Northside of Chiang Mai on Highway 1001, .

The entrance to our Moo Baan.

The entrance to the Land & Houses Park estate.

This Moo Baan was very different from the ones we had visited the day before. The more up-market ones have pretty tight security so you can’t just drive in and have a look around so we missed out on the full range of estates in our research the previous day.

The main security gate. Have to leave ID to get a visitor's pass.

The main security gate. You have to have a reason to visit and need to leave ID with the security guards to get a visitor’s pass.

I know I am going to sound like an middle aged, soon to be retired public servant foreigner in an Asian country BUT it was so refreshing to be in a place which was orderly, spotless and beautifully landscaped. I was almost sold before I was shown any houses.

Broad roads and well maintained gardens inside the estate.

Broad roads and well maintained gardens inside the estate.

Entering the Moo Baan from the highway there is the main security checkpoint, as shown in picture two above. Residents have passes on their cars and the guards actually come to attention and salute you on the way in! Once inside the development there are a number of separate estates each with their own security point – more salutes.

Another security point entering our part of the estate.

Another security point entering our part of the estate. The little figure in red was the guard’s young daughter and his son was at the checkpoint too. It was a Saturday when I took this photo so no school. On leaving I got a salute from all three of them! Should have stopped to take a photo. Very sweet.

Stefan showed us five houses in the estate and we decided on the final one. Owned by a Thai dentist it was on the market for 20,000 TBH a month (A$680.00) with a minimum two year lease. I met the owner and she must have been impressed with my Australian public service image because she was willing to let me have it for 15,000 THB a month ($510.00) and a one year lease.

We pay an extra 1,000 TBH ($30.00) a month which pays for a gardener twice a week and covers all Moo Baan fees including development maintenance, security and use of the pool etc.

The house.

The house.

This is a three bedroom, three bathroom, three air conditioner place fully furnished. Two bedrooms are upstairs each with their own en-suite and the third bedroom is downstairs and has been converted into a TV room. Open plan living areas and separate Western style kitchen.

The small front garden.

The small front garden.

A covered patio at the side of the house.

A covered patio at the side of the house.

The living area. Has plenty of light and views to greenery.

The living area. Has plenty of light and views to greenery.

A TV room downstairs.

A TV room downstairs.

A reasonable kitchen.

A reasonable kitchen.

The stairs leading from the lounge room upstairs. I have asked for the three old TVs to be removed and will replace a couple of them. It's a boy thing!

The stairs leading from the lounge room upstairs. I have asked for the three old TVs to be removed and will replace a couple of them with flat screens. It’s a boy thing!

Lounge dining.

Lounge dining.

The smaller guest bedroom with en-suite. Wallpaper - how English!

The smaller guest bedroom with en-suite. Wallpaper – how English!

The master bedroom.

The master bedroom.

Main bedroom ensuite.

Main bedroom en-suite.

Only ten houses in our street. Nicely landscaped.

Only ten houses in our cul de sac. Nicely landscaped. Not much different from some of the earlier Moo Baan photos I showed you previously. Just been established for longer.

Waterfront villas a couple of blocks over from us.

Waterfront villas a couple of blocks over from us.

Me chatting with Stefan, the agent, at the estate's clubhouse.

Me chatting with Stefan, the agent, at the estate’s clubhouse.

The swimming pool available free for residents.

A view of half of the swimming pool available free for residents.

Our lease in Chiang Rai finishes on 31 October and we move to Chiang Mai on 1 November. The start of a new phase to life here.

There’s part of me that feels I have copped out of earlier intentions to do it more “Thai” in my house selection. This is a very safe option and somehow representative of foreigners who come here and then try to replicate life back home. However, I take some comfort in that there are many Thai residents living here as they enjoy living to a standard we are used to so it’s equally a cop out for them.

I have found the adjustment from Australia to such a different culture to have it’s unsettling moments. Some of it hasn’t been that easy and running for “home” has looked good on occasions. I think my decision to live at this Moo Baan allows me to gently settle into Thailand for my first twelve months. It gives me a “sane” base from which to engage in the slight madness that is Thailand on the outside. The centre of Chiang Mai, the Old Town (see previous blog) is only about 25 minutes away and large Western shopping malls ten minutes drive.

We will keep our eyes open in the next twelve months and see what else is available on the housing front that might offer an alternative base.

I hope you have enjoyed this rather long and mixed blog on Thai housing.

Update 7 October 2014:

I have written a post on Moo Baan or gated village living HERE.

Thanks for reading.