I recently had to fill out an Australian statutory declaration, if interested you can read about the reason why in my post HERE, where one of the questions it asked for was my occupation. To me I could answer in one of two ways – either occupation “none” or occupation “retired”. I wrote “retired” because after all nobody wants to admit not having an occupation even in retirement. It seems that in many ways an occupation is what has defined us for much of our lives! That question made me think about the subject of retirement and why we should never dismiss it as a “none” occupation! This post is my contribution to the subject.
Firstly I don’t attempt to offer a retirement “to-do” kit in this post. I am a newby retired person and am not an expert in this along with most other topics. I only offer you my post-employment musings and hopefully some aspects will help guide your thinking and planning if you too are thinking of jumping into the unknown here in Thailand. Your goals and personal retirement situation will be different to mine but I suspect some of the challenges I have found will be fairly generic to those who decide to move here.
I arrived in Thailand June 2013 without intending to live here. It was supposed to be a period of leave without pay (Glenn if you are reading I am forever in your debt) for a seven month exploration of the country to see if it was a longer term option to escape a working situation that was slowly killing me in Australia. The separation from my wife and the selling of our home in Canberra gave me the freedom to start anywhere fresh, although with a very limited potential superannuation income “anywhere” excluded most places!
After a six week holiday period in Phuket, which I didn’t count as a true Thai experience, I wanted to try and replicate what it would be like if I chose to live here for real. I selected Chiang Rai, in the far North of the country, and a small house located on the edge of a rural Moo Baan or village on the outskirts of Chiang Rai city as my base for ten weeks.
It was during this time I was offered a redundancy, which after a few sleepless nights and much uncertainty, I decided to accept. I suddenly found myself at the age of 57 in the category of “Occupation – retired”, something I hadn’t expected at this time of my life, and the challenge to establish myself in a foreign country with limited options for permanently returning home.
Now this is one of those half full and/or half empty glass situations. I was and am incredibly lucky to have the chance to stop working permanently at such a young age and have a small but adequate income to support that choice. I was based in a new and vibrant country with a new and vibrant Thai partner and there was so much to see and do. On the empty glass side I had unexpectedly cut ties with Australia, a country I had called home for 45 years, left friends and family and a lifestyle that, although I had become frustrated with it was as least a known frustration, as well as given up a six figure annual income.
Funnily one of the big issues for me in deciding to retire was an uncertainty about what I was to do with all the spare time now that the central work commitment aspect of my life had been taken away. Now many of you may think this was crazy thinking. We all dream of not having to set the alarm every day, make the commute and engage in whatever employment we have to do to provide an income. Some of you have an extensive list of hobbies, sports and other interests that are just waiting to take over your retired spare time and fill your new life. For others, like me, this may be a shorter list.
I realised in my assessment that if I chose to retire the first step was to ensure I wasn’t seduced into seeing it as a very long holiday and trying to live it in the same way as I had in say my six weeks in Phuket. Retirement is not an extended holiday. Approach it with the attitude that it is (a) nothing more than a permanent morning sleep-in and (b) the rest will fall into place, will possibly result in problems of adjustment further down the track.
At this stage of my sixteen months post-employment time in Thailand as I write this post I believe that retirement needs to be seen as a balanced mix of holiday and something else more structured, a statement I cover in more depth below.
The holiday aspect comes from that fact that work has been subtracted from the equation of your life. You now have the time to do the things you normally try to fit into a two or three week break in a more relaxed and considered way. You can expand your list of holiday activities to included those smaller attractions that fell further down the to-do list and never made the “A” list while you were employed due to limited time.
If you are into sports or hobbies you can also now spend the time on these without feeling guilty that you are eating into precious holiday or weekend time. It all looks great and is everything we all dream of as we slaved away doing whatever it was that filled 1/3rd of our life.
You do however need to keep firmly in mind that the nine hours plus work/travel commitment you had previously is now handed to you each day to fill – forever. The holiday aspects I touched on above will work for a while but for most people not as a permanent everyday lifestyle, especially if you now have a more limited retirement income. Add those blank nine hours and take away the social connections with friends, neighbours, family and even work colleagues that formed your life back home and you suddenly realise that this is a very different set of circumstances and not necessarily all positive.
That “more structured” aspect I mentioned above is the framework of your life outside the holiday sightseeing. I have to confess that for me this has yet to take shape, which is why this isn’t a Dummies Guide to Retirement post. If you have read the 130+ posts of my blog you will know that we have been very busy exploring as much of my new home as I can and writing about the experiences. It is only more recently that I have felt that this side, the “holiday”, has basically come to a close.
For me I am changing focus as we move from Chiang Mai to Si Bun Ruang, a small Isaan town in the North Eastern part of Thailand, to build a house and write a new chapter of my Thai life. This is stage 3 in Thailand for me (1) was pure holiday in Phuket, (2) has been a living in Thailand holiday – Chiang Mai and (3) will be building in rural Thailand. The “structured” aspect will come post-build sometime in the future once we have settled into and explored Isaan. I still have those nine extra hours to fill every day and in time I will report back on what that looks like for me.
The additional aspect, if you are considering in becoming an expat, is the glaring obvious that you will now be living in a VERY different country. Thailand is very benign when compared to some of the alternatives but it still is probably very different from anything you have experienced long-term up to now. Some of those differences are obvious and some are more subtle.
Visually the place looks different, the food, if you eat more like a local, is Friday night takeaway in Australia on a permanent basis, you are often the only white person in a sea of Thais. If you don’t have a Thai partner the language difficulties limit your ability to easily do even the more basic tasks. Organising a place to live, paying for utilities, getting broadband, buying a car or bike, getting a Thai driver’s licence, insurance, which mobile plan is the best, all of these things we take for granted in our own countries can be more of a challenge here. Not because they are more difficult in themselves just that the processes, language, forms and timescales all have a uniquely Thai flavour, as do ours for someone starting life in Australia.
The climate is also very different unless you come from a tropical part of the world. Hot and dry and hot and wet is often used to describe it. If you live in the North of the country you will experience a dry and cool season as well, which is a relief from the other two.
There are lots of little adjustments – buying drinking water, where to get the basics we westerners enjoy, Thai visa bureaucracy, Thai TV soapies wherever you turn, the traffic, will you be stopped and asked for a bribe by police, you are only a foreigner in someone else’s country and every 90 days you have to report in to immigration, the exchange rate, you are taxed from dollar one if from Australia with no tax free threshold, finding a good hairdresser who won’t give you an interesting lopsided look! and on it goes. Some of these register with you, others are noted at a deeper level. This is not downtown wherever it is you came from.
The unexpected timing of my residency in Thailand meant that I hadn’t planned for those extra nine hours a day I mentioned above and I wasn’t 100% convinced that I had made the right decision. There was a niggling worry that I was making a choice based on a negative, that is looking for a way NOT to return to a life I thoroughly disliked in Canberra, rather than a positive – embracing Thailand. I am not discounting Thailand – I obviously had a strong belief I could make a good life here. To take such a big step based purely on what I didn’t want would have been crazy.
In retrospect my choice of both Chiang Rai and the house location this wasn’t the best decision to have made in the personal circumstances I have covered above. Chiang Rai is a smaller and less developed example of what Chiang Mai is today. It is a place I could easily live and enjoy now but I found the adjustment to Thai life on a permanent basis to be harder for me in a relatively more isolated location, both in town and house. It all seems silly now that I am extremely comfortable in Thailand but I know looking back that some of those “unrecognised” factors were strongly influencing my first three months of properly “living” in Thailand. Maybe you would find the same.
I have great admiration for those expats I read about who arrive here, find a Thai partner and then head off to set up home in a remote and basic Thai rural village. I couldn’t do that now let alone earlier on in my time here. For me Chiang Rai, although hardly off the map was a bit too much that early in my time here. It is why so many expats end up in Phuket, Pattaya or Chiang Mai, all places with large foreign populations and a farang infrastructure that supports people like me. The difference for me is that having established myself here I no longer require that infrastructure to support my continued living here. Others, quite understandably, enjoy those places and make them home.
What would I do differently now?
I would probably head for “safe” ground for the first 6 – 12 months until I settled into life here. Our move from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai in November 2013 was purely based on my need to increase my Thai comfort levels. With 27,000 expats living here and a huge tourist population, Chiang Mai is very farang friendly. There are lots of all the things that push our happiness buttons including cafes, restaurants, drinking places, a small nightlife, western shops and Thais that have some understanding of English. There are heaps of hobby/special interest groups and the Expats Club HERE is a good place to start for some, although it does have a retired American flavour. I only went three times but met a guy there who turned out to be our best friend in Chiang Mai – an English bloke.
Chiang Mai also fills that holiday space as well. There are plenty of places to see and enjoy, many of which I have written about on this blog. Substitute Chiang Mai with any of the other main farang centres, based on your personal interests in retirement. If a beach person Chiang Mai may leave you feeling a little unsatisfied! Once you have found your Thai feet then the place is open to you. Head for more adventurous locations and rent for six months. Don’t commit to a permanent home now or ever. Taste test your way around the country.
1) Slow down. Gaun, my wonderful Thai wife, was always telling me to “cha cha” not a dance step but Thai for slowly, slowly. Westerners are always on a mission in both work and home. We walk faster and are thinking more. Slow down. Take your time. There’s no longer any rush. I wear a watch for decoration. I very rarely use it for telling the time. Why? There is no longer any timeclock in my life. Thais schedule things morning, afternoon, evening. Give it a go.
2) You are not special. The Thais are a very polite people, mostly, to your face. It is easy to believe you are special and superior to them. You aren’t. You are in THEIR country. Be equally polite and respectful back and treat them as you would want to be treated yourself. We are incredibly lucky to have the money to live a retired life most Thais dream about – as do a lot of westerners!
3) Learn a little bit of Thai. I am useless but have mastered counting and some of the basic niceties. The Thais really appreciate it when you have a go at their language. You aren’t a tourist anymore. Take an interest.
4) Remember that whatever the frustration of bureaucracy it is how it is. Do the research before applying for your driver’s licence or whatever. The internet is full of information. If they want two passport photos and you only turn up with one then it’s your problem not theirs. I have found that if you do the research, do exactly what’s required and relax the Thai bureaucracy works better often than in Australia.
5) Try doing some things that you wouldn’t do at home, wherever that was. I hear of so many retirees that attempt to totally replicate their home life – the same food, TV, house design etc etc. If you are purely an economic refugee you are missing so much of what Thailand has to offer. Break the mould, or crack it anyway and see where it takes you. You won’t get another chance.
6) Recognise that you will need to have that balance of holiday and daily routine planned for, which requires more than a default “she’ll be right” for those Aussies reading this. This is not a “none” occupation, it is probably the most important time of your life because it is the rest of your life. Take time to settle in and enjoy every moment of this wonderful opportunity Thailand offers you to experience the best of your life. I am and I wish the same for you too.
Thanks for reading.