I had to update my home address details with Chiang Mai immigration recently, something required every 90 days under the terms of my retirement or O type visa. Being the second time I have had to do this it was a reminder that I have now been here for six months although it seems longer. I thought that I would mark this landmark occasion with a review of my life here in Thailand warts and all. Writing this blog entry has given me an opportunity to assess my decision to live here as much for my interest as for anyone else’s. It’s a long one so enjoy with coffee or a wine.
For those of you reading my various entries over the last six months it will seem that my life here is one of constant travel, visiting beautiful, interesting places and filling in my time immersed in the culture of Thailand. My photos are selected to show the best of what I have seen and experienced and people are always smiling and looking happy, me included.
The reality is, as you’d expect, somewhat different from that. For most people visiting Thailand for a couple of week’s holiday the pictures below will represent to a large extent what they actually see and do here, although not quite as perfect as we all know from experience. Mind you I still believe that a good Aussie beach beats anything you’ll find over here, but we are a bit short on elephants. The bits that don’t fit the tourist brochure world can still be fascinating because they are so different from the reality we see day to day in a place such as Canberra.
Living full-time in Thailand takes you out of the hotel compound, away from the poolside bar, the tour bus and the selected sightseeing photo opportunities and mixes you in with over 60 million Thais going about their daily lives. So what do you REALLY get with the retired in Thailand package?
I have decided the easiest way to tackle this topic is to work through the minuses and pluses of living here. Please keep in mind this is based on my personal experiences and I’ve only been here for six months, which is a pretty short time to make final judgements on anything. I will start with the minuses so that I can leave you on a positive high!
The Thailand most of us expats will experience day to day is generally pretty ugly. That’s because we tend to live in the cities and towns, some in well known places such as Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket and Chiang Mai and others in lesser known towns such as Udon Thani, Khon Kaen and Korat.
What you’ll see in a typical Thai urban area isn’t pretty by any standard. Development in Thailand as in many emerging Asian countries seems to consist of tons of concrete quickly thrown together with very little, if any regard for aesthetics. Once built, even if passable to look at then, there is often no ongoing maintenance and the result after the passage of time is woeful. The paint that goes on during the build is the paint that will be with the building until it collapses!
Electricity lines combined with broadband wiring clutter the streetscape.
Advertising signage is everywhere. In the cities it dominates the skyline at every intersection and in the countryside it seems that every other tree close to any type of habitation has a sign advertising mobile phones or flat-pack furniture.
Even the small rural towns such as Si Bun Ruang, Gaun’s home town, are equally uninspiring only on a smaller scale.
I have found this ugliness to be the most disappointing aspect of Thailand and the hardest to reconcile. This is an everyday landscape that is a far cry from the world’s more beautiful alternatives I have visited. A Tuscan village, Florence – even with the traffic – Sydney harbour on a sunny day, a Welsh village, Port Douglas in Queensland, the list goes on. All those countries have an ugly developed flip side too but it isn’t as universal as Thailand. For the most part I just can’t imagine driving somewhere here and finding a natural urban area that you’d waste even digital photography capturing for the folks back home. There are exceptions of course but I am using a fairly broad brush for this topic.
However let me finish off this line of thought by recognising the mind’s ability to trap one in a dream-world of unrealistic expectations. I have no more chance of being able to retire to a Tuscan village or Port Douglas than most other people. Given a different budget and situation and then offered a choice………………..???
A list of other possible negatives follows many of which are raised in the Thai online forums:
Traffic – Thais have embraced the petrol engine like all developed and developing countries. The mix of large four wheel drives and motorbikes always makes for interesting road experiences but it mostly seems to work itself out in the end. I haven’t been in Chiang Mai very long but have done a lot of driving around the city as part of the settling in period. Getting a Thai driver’s licence requires three trips to the other side of town for example.
Any image of Chiang Mai as a laid back large country town is soon put to rest if you have to drive anywhere on a main route or try to cross a street. This is a traffic clogged city with all of the frustration (if you let it get to you) and time waste that involves. Not that I have any hang ups about wasting time here as I have adopted both a Thai and retired attitude. I approach each day without a specific timetable so I can’t be late for anything and if it doesn’t get done today………. ! It works well.
Bureaucracy – yes alive and well here as it is everywhere. I have had a bit of dealings with officialdom and have for the most part found the people to be courteous and efficient within the constraints of the system or the resources available. Some of the paperwork required seems to lack any sensible purpose but can anyone say that they haven’t experienced that in Australia?
Corruption – petty corruption is certainly around. I haven’t been in a situation where any “extra” money has been required but the time will undoubtedly come. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It depends on the circumstances. The police will sometimes make up a traffic offence, so I hear, and the resulting fine is lower if paid on the spot. However for genuine traffic offences or other smaller incidents I am very happy to part with less than $10.00 and have it all forgotten.
Police – The police are a very visible presence here. Travel anywhere outside the cities and you will pass through several police checkpoints, some manned with real police, some with plastic police – I kid you not – and others unmanned.
Most will wave you through (not the plastic police!) but sometimes they will ask for your papers but seem to be more interested in practising their modest English. The classic police interrogation was when we were stopped at a checkpoint on the way to Isaan recently. The policeman asked Gaun where she was going to which Gaun replied “home” and we were waved through!
Weather – I haven’t been through a full cycle yet so reserve judgement on my ability to cope with a tropical climate. We are currently in Winter and for Chiang Mai that means night temperatures dropping to 5 degrees at night and daytime temperatures ranging from the low to high twenties. Mostly sunny with no wind so very pleasant by mid-morning. The Thais are rugged up for winter, which can be funny to see:
The slight downside to Northern Thailand’s version of winter is that nothing is built to cope with even moderately low temperatures. Some cars, not my Mazda thank goodness, don’t have heating, air conditioning is cooling only and for people like me who arrived in the warmer season, bedding and clothing is inadequate until upgraded. It is still a glorious time of year to be here though – sorry this was supposed a minus entry.
The Smoky Season – Chiang Mai has a smoky season from late February to late March/April, which I believe is very ordinary. It happens as a result of the rural farmers burning off their fields and harvest waste, not just in Thailand but throughout the region. Air quality can be at dangerous levels on bad days and people are advised to stay inside.
I will be mostly visiting Australia in 2014 during this period but if I made the North of Thailand my permanent base I would retreat to my Isaan holiday home at this time of year, which will be ready in 2015, or the coast where the sea breezes help break up any smoke making it down that way.
Bathroom Showers – what is it with Thais and showers? Most water heating if it exists, and many homes here don’t have hot water Gaun’s family home included, is in the form of those small electric wall heaters on the shower wall. If renting here there may be many bathrooms but you need to check on how many water heaters are supplied. I have three bathrooms but only two water heaters. It is unusual for the kitchen or laundry to have hot water. BTW a “laundry” is usually a washing machine under the eves out the back and no tub.
Now these are great little appliances and super cheap to run. However the ones I have experienced on the whole are geared to producing water at a temperature suitable for the summer heat not a 5 degree morning in Chiang Mai. The result is a lukewarm wake up shower with a modest waterflow that has me wishing for those large bulk hot water systems back home with a non-environmentally friendly rain-shower head. Ah bliss.
The other downside to bathroom design over here is that many showers seem to be completely open to the rest of the bathroom even in upmarket hotels. A simple shower screen, wall or even a low cost curtain would prevent the whole floor and toilet being drenched with water. It is a consistently weird annoyance and so unnecessary.
Cost of Living – the base costs of living are very cheap here and I have put that in the plus entries. However if you want to replicate your life in Australia there are some more substantial costs involved, maybe not at Aussie levels, but not super cheap. If you are thinking of getting over here and living life based on a “Thailand on $10.00 a Day” publication you’ll be a bit disappointed. Anything imported is expensive and quite often around the same cost as you’d pay back home. There is a huge tax imposed on non-Thai goods. Electronics, cameras, western food and cars fall into this category. Broadband is cheap but not give-away. For example I pay $33.00 a month for broadband. There is an upside to broadband and I’ll cover that in the pluses.
So there you have my mixed bag of minuses. One big one and lots of other minor things. Let’s see if the Pluses are enough to tip the balance and support my decision to be here.
Thailand can be beautiful. Yes, the opposite to my opening statement in the Minuses section. Outside the developed mess Thailand offers areas of wonderful beauty, some of it totally natural and some incorporating man’s usage of the land. 66% of the population is classified as rural in Thailand compared with 11% in Australia. What this means is that although there are large areas of fully natural landscapes there are also huge parts of the country which are being used to raise crops with the resulting visual infrastructure. The rural development is still awful on the whole but the cultivated landscape can be stunningly attractive.
The totally natural parts of the country, and I stand to be corrected here, seem to be either areas where farming is difficult or impossible such as mountainous regions or locked up in national parks. Wild means pretty wild here too. I loved these genuine warning signs for wild elephants we saw along Route 12 when driving over the mountains into Isaan.
Because of the intense agricultural use of land it is hard to truly get away from people but at least the rural development, although equally uninspiring to look at, is less intrusive and the surrounding rural vistas can be very easy on the eye.
For someone like me who loves the silence and beauty of nature Thailand does provide opportunities to satisfy that side of me, especially in the North so a plus with reservations.
Smiles – For me the thing that makes Thailand is its people. The country is advertised as LOS, Land of Smiles, which imposes a heavily and unachievable happiness burden on the Thais! The fact is you get smiley and non-smiley, friendly and dismissive people here as you do anywhere in the world. However personally I have found most of the people just delightful to deal with and a full-on Thai smile lights up the world.
I think a lot of the reaction you get from the locals is based on your own attitude and demeanour. Many of the foreigners I see walking the streets or at sightseeing destinations look as though their mother has just passed away. Thais have a huge pride in their country and an expectation that people will visit and appreciate what they see and experience. Gaun often says in relation to sad looking foreigners “If you don’t come to Thailand to be happy why do you come?” She has a point.
After spending a little time in Gaun’s village I was told that the people that I dealt with were impressed to see a happy, smiling farang. And why not? I am having a pretty good time over here and I love meeting Thais so why not to be happily expressive. Smile genuinely at a Thai and nine out of ten you’ll get a huge and sometimes surprised grin in return.
Getting Older – A broad generalisation as well but you be treated very courteously here especially if older and I think I’m heading in that direction especially with my new permanent glasses! Shop people, bank tellers, staff at restaurants and cafes will often give you a middle wai, a wai defined as “the Thai greeting which consists of a slight bow, with the palms pressed together in a prayer-like fashion”.
There are three different levels of wai depending on how people rate your standing in society. Fingertips at chin level is the lowest, fingertips to the nose level is for people of higher or equal standing and thumb to the forehead level is for monks and royalty. Just for interest if visiting Thailand you don’t return a wai to people serving you or to children. A slight bow and smile does the job. Monks don’t wai the King, he wais them!
I will often receive a middle wai because unlike Western society age is seen as something to respect here. If you’ve treated people thoughtfully in dealing with them and smiled then you will most likely get a lovely acknowledgement wai when leaving. It’s a really nice feeling.
Younger people will sometimes lower themselves slightly if walking past you or between you and someone else. Once again symbolic of the respect given to an older person. So age does have its benefits here and as I head towards my 58th birthday next week that’s got to be a good thing.
My Home – let’s face it if not at work or permanently in the car because you have young children! then you spend a large part of the time at home. For me the Moo Baan, or village, where I live is close to perfect. The soi – street – I live in has eight houses and it is super quiet and peaceful.
The complex has been established for a while so there’s heaps of lush tropical vegetation and the common grounds are meticulously maintained by a small army of Myanmar workers employed because they are cheaper than Thais!
The house and it’s surrounds gives me an oasis from which I can head out to tackle the challenges of Chiang Mai traffic and city pace.
Things to do – Chiang Mai and the North of Thailand is full of things to do so if you make the effort there is no need to feel trapped in a suburban wasteland. Chiang Mai, because it has a large foreign resident population plus a big tourist industry, offers heaps of restaurants, cafes and drinking places to choose from.
Lots of good quality temples and more cultural type activities if that’s your thing.
Sporting clubs, photography and social type groups based around foreigners are on offer too.
Chiang Mai is very central to exploring the surrounding area if you have the time and transport.
The balancing negative to all of this on offer is that, like any larger city, getting to where you want to go can be the main deterrent. Popping out to Nimmanhaemin for a meal or drink is a decent and probably slightly frustrating drive so like a lot of people living in the “suburbs” you tend not to make the effort. It is there to be done if you want to however.
Cost of living – This topic rates a plus and minus but mostly a plus. The plus is that the basic living expenses are very cheap here. My electricity bill last month was $22.00, water $4.00, rent for a very comfortable three bedroom house with three en-suites, including a gardener twice a week and security guards is $500 a month and you can still get a decent place for a third of that!
Eating Thai is super cheap when you shop at the local markets. We are spending around $120 a month for all food and that’s for two of us. A kilo of chicken breast is $2.00, vegetables are straight off the farm and amazingly reasonable. A cafe coffee will set you back $1.50, a large bottle of beer at a bar $2.00, a one hour Thai massage $8.00, a good dinner out including drinks $15.00. I don’t know what petrol is back home now but here the ethanol mix called E20 is around $1.20 a litre, I had my car’s brakes cleaned and checked, which took an hour for $8.00. An electrical problem in the car was fixed for $0.80.
For a retired person like me on a modest income I can cover my essential expenses for very little. I am budgeting $500 a month. Anything beyond that is optional and even on my early retirement PSS income that leaves for a lot of discretion which adds up to a pretty comfortable lifestyle here.
Building a home – If you have been following my blog you’ll know that we recently bought a block of land in a Moo Baan of Si Bun Ruang, a small town in Isaan about two hours South of the Laos border. The land cost around $11,000 for 1,000 sq meters and I will be building a 150 sq meter house on it at Western standards for around $40,000 complete. Separate blog entries will monitor the build when it happens next year.
The cost of materials here is wonderfully cheap, labour is of course inexpensive and the cost for most inclusions is very modest by our standards. As stated previously in the Minuses, imported goods like air conditioners, ovens (who needs one?) etc are close to Australian costs.
Food – I don’t know if you are a fan of Thai food but if you are this is obviously a big plus of being here. The majority of menu choices on a day to day basis are pretty basic and rely on the extreme freshness of the ingredients to carry the dish. You will probably get more complex flavours from a good Thai restaurant in Australia, but having said that I haven’t been to a top Thai restaurant here and some of them are supposed to be wonderful.
Thais LOVE food and seem to be permanently hungry. Food carts line every street. Small eating places are never more than a few steps away. The markets are mixed with food stalls selling all sorts of cooked nibbles to keep you going until the next meal. Thais graze through their days, which is a pretty good way to live in my opinion.
If you want to eat as a local at a street place then a main course will set you back around $1.10. Rice will cost maybe $0.40 – $0.70 more! A beer here will be $1.40.
Gaun, bless her, cooks two meals every evening. She produces an Isaan dish for herself, which is often highly chillied, super hot and then a more toned down and often totally different selection for me. Rice is central to any meal of course. Beef isn’t a big thing here although it is available in the markets. Fish, chicken and pork are the main offerings. A tasty fried frog can be found if you get the urge. A massive range of glistening fresh vegetables, some of which I’ve never seen at Woollies, pack market tables.
My new lifestyle has changed my eating desires, so I almost never have sweet things or rubbish food. Biscuits, cakes, ice cream and confectionery are all off the agenda because I just don’t have the urge for them here. Alcohol too is no longer a big part of my life and the overall result is a far healthier diet. Cheaper too.
Driving – I have covered this before but outside the built-up areas driving in Thailand is great fun. The roads are mostly in great condition, you drive to the conditions not the speed limit and the countryside you pass through is often interesting. If you ever feel a bit hungry there’s usually a food stop close by!
Holidays – bored with Chiang Mai? How about a return flight from Chiang Mai to Hong Kong for $250.00? Return to Vietnam for $300.00? Malaysia for $160.00 or go local and fly return to Phuket for a beachside holiday – $140.00 return? Thailand is central to a heap of interesting Asian countries if I feel the urge to try something different. Further afield? Bangkok to London return for around $1,000.
Medical – Important in a decision to retire here, as it would be anywhere, is the quality of the medical system. Thailand has a first rate range of medical options some at international standards that would surpass the offerings in Australia. Dental and medical are available at very competitive prices, which becomes more relevant as one grows older. Private health cover is available here but the premiums are age based, as expensive as Australia and realistically one would need to be self-funded at some point in time.
Broadband – I said I would list this in the positives. I am with a big internet company called 3BB. I went into their office to sign up for broadband one day and the guy was round at my house hooking it up the next, which happened to be a Sunday. Yes, it’s not super cheap at $33.00 a month but I’m getting a consistent 15 mbps, three times faster than the best my broadband speed in Canberra. If I were to illegally download movies, God forbid, I have it on good authority that I can pick one up in around 10 minutes! I must get round to trying that out for myself.
This speed allows me to sign up and watch internet entertainment such as Expat TV, which streams the best of British TV channels and movies through http://www.tvlinks.cc/index.htm – well worth a visit BTW.
The other big plus is that you are charged based on the speed you want not the amount of download. What a sensible idea which is why it isn’t an option available in Australia. Sometimes we can look very silly when compared to other countries. I can get up to 1,000 mbps if available in my Moo Baan but that is really expensive.
I am sure I have missed both minuses and pluses and no doubt my comments will change over time. At this point I still believe that there are enough pluses to make Thailand a good decision to have made. Would I prefer a retirement in a Tuscan hilltop village? Maybe. However much of life is not based on where you are but your attitude to living a full life in the circumstance you find yourself. Thailand has lots of opportunities for me to make that full life. I guess it’s over to me.
I finish with a little real life story that made a big impression on me. We were visiting the Queen Sirikit Botanical gardens recently – photo above. I came across an American guy with his Thai lady who was also wandering the gardens. On first meet I nodded to him and tried to catch his eye to get a response. Nothing. We crossed paths again later and I greeted them with a “Hello, how are you” in a friendly Aussie way, and was still totally ignored although his Thai lady responded with a hello. I then became lost in focussing on American arrogance and their fast fading ideas that they are masters of the universe etc.
I said something to Gaun along the lines of the rudeness of some farang and she simply said ” I don’t look at the farang. I look at flowers because they make me happy” and there you have a good philosophy for life. Don’t focus on those things that upset you, they are just a distraction. Instead dive into the things that bring you pleasure, enjoyment and deep satisfaction. Maybe I need to release my focus on the ugly nature of some of Thailand and focus instead on the wonderful opportunity that’s been given to me.
As a final final the American came up to me later and apologised for not replying to me saying he was miles away thinking about some problem he had – with his lady friend I suspect. What a waste of anger on my part. Gaun had it right all along.
Have a wonderful Christmas break.
Update 7 October 2014
I have now been here over 15 months and my assessment at the 12 month point can be read HERE.
Thanks for reading