I started this story a while back intending to make it my 200th entry to the blog, which coincided with my second anniversary in Thailand. This milestone seemed like a good time to review how retirement is working out for me here and also to reflect on the challenges retirement offers in general no matter where you make your home. It didn’t work out for the 200th post but it does today.
I am stating the obvious but a lot of this post is based on my experience and the level of relevance of my observations to your situation may rate anywhere from zero and up. This is my most personal post to date, which I only do to illustrate the points I want to make. I have no desire to turn my blog into a Facebook type expression of my private thoughts and feelings, which would bore me let alone anyone else.
The photos are mostly included because I like them and they break up the words rather than have any context to the writing. Some of them come from my favourite shots of Thailand, which is a series I will be publishing as a separate gallery at some stage.
I have put all relevant links to related stories at the end of the post so as not to distract you. The link reference numbers are under each photo.
So on with the show:
It was one of those hot, humid, breathless tropical evenings in Phuket and I was in the main street of Rawai shopping for drugs!
I had been in Phuket for a couple of weeks as part of what would end up being a six week beach holiday before I headed into “real” Thailand to see what it offered me as a longer term retirement option. The reason I was on the hunt for drugs was that some aspects of the darker side of coming to a place like Thailand had kicked in and I was having a panic attack, one of several that would grab me over the next few months. The reasons for this and the ones that followed are what I want to expand on in this post.
I better clear up the drugs first before my next post informs you on the conditions inside Si Bun Ruang prison. What I was searching for was Valium, so not as exotic or illegal as you may have thought. Valium is often easily available from your local pharmacy without a prescription so knock yourself out 🙂 An odd reaction to living in paradise you might think. Read on.
Just a funny (now) side-story related to this. You will find that most pills when dispensed from a pharmacy are taken from a large container and placed into a little plastic bag on which the chemist helpfully writes the name, but in Thai script. It was only when I got home that I checked the bag and found these little blue pills. To compound my panic attack I was now worried about whether the pharmacist had understood what I wanted and instead of Valium had had given me Viagra! I took the pill and waited to see which part of my body reacted. A win-win situation really.
I am sure you have come across those upbeat, lightweight magazine articles about how wonderful it is to retire to somewhere in SE Asia like Thailand. I published one such article HERE and it is worth reading if you haven’t already done so to give some context to this post. I will extract a paragraph just to give you a taste of the positive prognosis for you retirees swarming to Thailand:
Many of them (retirees) will embrace their new freedom in a new country. The cost of living across south-east Asia can be 50 to 80 per cent cheaper than Australia, with huge savings on rent, restaurants and the like. While a cheaper, more luxurious lifestyle is the primary driver for the move offshore, the social life is also a big attraction. Jennifer, a former librarian, recently divorced, who moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand, says that her social life is the busiest it has ever been.
More bang for your bucks and a busy social life. Where do I sign?
What you are less likely to read are more balanced articles that give equal weighting to the downside of moving from your home country to a place like Thailand to start your luxurious and socially rich lifestyle. This blog entry is an attempt to provide you with that alternative view.
So what had hit home for me on that lovely tropical evening in Phuket? It is best described by splitting the conflict in my mind into two parts. I believe these dual questions will apply to everyone who makes the move here. Firstly “what have I left behind” and secondly “what does the future look like for me”.
In my situation what had mainly suddenly caught up with me was the realisation of what I had left behind and things that had ended to allow me to achieve being in Thailand that evening in 2013. Both my parents had died reasonably close together time wise, my dad in 2012. End of an era. I would never have left Australia if either of them were still alive. The same year my wife and I separated and I made a decision to take 12 months leave from work without pay financed by the sale of my house, a place I had obsessively worked renovating for seven years. Events and choices had largely zeroed my life.
The list I have just shared is a personal one and your list of drivers for change will be different. However what will apply equally to us both is the loss of a firm base from which we have tackled life to this point. Living in Canberra, a place many people try to escape from, I have watched some newly retired people either head for the coast (as my parents did) or move North, which in Southern hemisphere terms means a warmer climate. I have also heard some stories of those retirees who find that their new lives are far less than expected. Why? Well after sometimes a lifetime in the one place they give up a network of local connections and understandings, friends, family and social contacts to move to a totally new environment and expect to recreate that same comfort zone. Sometimes it happens and often it is difficult.
To compound the general challenge of retiring some people (maybe you) also add a move to somewhere like Thailand into the mix. I will push the obvious again and state that you need to realise that this is not “just” a shift in address but a total deconstruction and hopefully a rebuilding of your life. It is nothing like coming here on holiday, having a great time and then concluding that it is where you want to make home.
In my situation the list I shared could have been seen as a positive outcome. It provided me with a blank canvas on which to paint my new life or it would have if I had a clear vision for the future, but this was largely missing. Can any of you relate to having a goal that you focus on so strongly that when you achieve it you suddenly realise that you don’t know what happens next? I know some of our politicians have had exactly that experience focussing so hard on getting the top job that they have no vision for the country once they get there.
For me winding up my Australian life and getting on that plane to Thailand became my life. I had become so absorbed with everything involved in achieving this goal that I hadn’t had the time or energy to devote equal time to dream up a new one! This is where my second point of conflict and panic comes in. My plan for life was (1) get to Thailand, (2) have a holiday in Phuket and (3) see what happens next. As a roadmap to my future it was maybe a little lacking in detail.
I can recall that evening and several others that followed being overwhelmed by the emptiness of my situation. The things that had previously filled my life effortlessly were now gone and I wasn’t sure what was going to replace them. I remember that I was actually worried about the time after Phuket when I planned to move into the “real” Thailand spending time in Isaan and the North of the country. Looking back on it now it all seems silly because I have now experienced what that “real” Thailand looks like and I live it every day (in a comfortable farang sort of way), but at the time it was a big unknown. The little things like foreignness of non-Phuket, driving, dealing with spoken Thai, the food, corrupt police, the constant heat and many others all combined to form a whirlpool of uncertainty. I even explored the rental options in Phuket as a way of not having to face that big, possibly bad Thailand outside of the farang oriented safety of Phuket.
For those regular readers of the blog you obviously know that I did cut the Phuket apron strings and head out, greatly assisted and supported by my now wife Gaun, who agreed to come with me for part of the journey (now a lifetime journey I hope). My sometimes fallback to Valium wasn’t over though and I was dipping into my supply of blue pills during my time post-Phuket as well.
To start my living in Thailand I wanted to try something in between a rural Isaan life and a Phuket type situation so I chose Chiang Rai in the far North of the country. The city of Chiang Rai is like a smaller and less hectic Chiang Mai, with many of the benefits of the latter while maintaining a more small town feel. I ended up renting a house on five acres in a small rural moo baan (village) outside Chiang Rai, which in retrospect was a mistake.
I have enormous respect and maybe even a touch of jealousy to read and sometimes meet those expats who are able to jump straight into Thai life. They’re the ones who start off in some rural backwater village in Isaan, live local and enjoy the largely isolated non-farang lifestyle. People I have met through the blog include Terry, who retired from his busy London life to live in a small tin shed on his wife’s mango farm miles from anywhere. Also Mike, an American surgeon, who moved into the very basic Isaan family home for 12 months while his house was built, sharing a bedroom with his mother-in-law. Now that’s dedication to the cause! Many others who have written to me are heading down some version of this path and I do whatever I can to support them because I know what a challenging journey it can be.
To balance this I also get many emails from seasoned farang with Thai partners living overseas who have been coming here for years building up to a final retirement decision at some stage. I wonder if they went through the same sort of cultural shock and adjustment that I did during those early times? Maybe some of you can let me and others know how you coped.
I have to own up by telling you that I wasn’t one of those “jump straight into Thai life” people. I found even Chiang Rai, a decent size place with some farang comforts, a bridge too far in my early days here. The house we rented, although lovely, was a car ride from anywhere and I was feeling very isolated and alone. It was while I lived there that a redundancy offer came through from my employer and after many sleepless nights I decided not to try and build a new life in Australia but to focus my energy on creating that life in Thailand.
The decision to take early retirement (I was 57 at the time), cut my ties with Australia and make Thailand home was a process that also brought on a few nighttime panics, both in making the decision and afterwards (what have I done…….!). My mind was also happy to pick up on another worry to keep me awake at two in the morning and it is one you probably would never guess.
Today is the first day of the rest of your life. Have you ever been to a self improvement course which gave you that phrase as a base for moving on in career or life? It is very cliched now but if you are about to retire this one of those times when these words really truly do mean exactly that. Just out of interest this phrase is credited to a guy called Charles Dederich who founded a cult called Church of Synanon in the 1970s. It was disbanded permanently in 1991 as one of the “most dangerous and violent cults America had ever seen.” We humans can always create a negative out of a positive if we try hard enough.
We all dream of retirement don’t we. It’s that permanent holiday pot of gold at the end of a life of working rainbow. It is also the biggest change and for many people one of the biggest unrecognised challenges in our lives. Why? Well I will try to explain from my point of view, which once again may or may not be relevant to your situation.
It was only while I was considering whether I would stop work permanently that the realisation really hit me that if I did I would have a lot of time on my hands. Now this may seem like a glaringly obvious statement without value but it is this sudden excess of time that contains within it either the seeds of new opportunities, a disaster or something in-between.
The truth is that if we have lived what’s considered a “normal” life we have been immersed in a disciplined schedule of activities that has ruled most of our time. Growing up it was school, sport and homework, a life largely determined by other people – parents, teachers and the educational system. After finishing school in my case I slipped straight into a job, a five days a week, nine to five routine, year in year out and swapped my younger life “time lords” for adult bosses and a career chasing that life absorbing goal of acquiring lots of material things most of which I have since dumped! Having escaped one schedule ruling my life I happily rushed into another swapping time for money.
The only moments of release to this “normal” routine comes around maybe once a year when we escape on holiday. Yet even here, because of their importance due their shortness, we often wrap them up in a schedule. I remember that my holidays were broken into two categories. Either they involved catching up on chores at home, working through a list of things I’d postponed doing on weekends, or they involved a planned excursion, a trip to the coast or an overseas holiday. They became yet another scheduled event. The time poor nature of holidays prevented them giving us a real taste of time freedom – a Doctor Who experience 🙂 Yet all this changes when finally retirement arrives. One day we are employed and included in the system and the next day we are retired and there’s all this freedom stretching out in front of us…………………….
I spoke earlier about life post-retirement being a “blank canvas on which you can paint a new life”. Now for those “artists” reading the post this can be a wonderful opportunity to splash out but for those of us who discover that they can’t “paint” it can be really scary and the retirement dream can end up looking more like a daily nightmare. What I discovered at Chiang Rai in the period before and after my retirement decision was that I wasn’t sure what was going to put on my blank canvas. This is where you and I may be wildly different and I will try to illustrate what I mean.
I went through a period here when I enjoyed watching either “Escape to the Country” or “Escape to the Continent” on my iPad as I don’t have expat TV. If you don’t know them these programs relate to couples planning to escape city life for the peace and quiet of the UK/European countryside. What really struck me in these programs is how limited people’s plans were for their new life “in the country/overseas” (substitute Thailand). If you have ever watched them you will know that the participant’s entire new life (substitute retirement) activities seems to involve walking the dog and cooking! Well that fills in a couple of hours a day but what about the rest of the time? It is one of those “goal” examples again. You plan and look forward so much to retirement that when you achieve the goal and get over the bliss of stepping out of the Monday – Friday work routine you might suddenly realise that after walking the dog and baking some cupcakes that life’s a bit of a blank!
Now many of you won’t be in this position. If you play golf now you’ll play more golf, if you fish, read, paint, watch sport etc etc…..you’ll just do more of it. There may also be new things on your to-do list, hobbies to take up, charity work and so on. Travel is always popular but you might also be on a tighter budget, maybe for the first time in your life. Money takes on a new importance when it isn’t being topped up by a weekly paycheque.
In my case the retirement option came about unexpectedly so my planning was a little rushed (the truth be known there was little planning and just the hope it would all come together on the day!) I have to confess that I wasn’t naturally equipped to fill that extra time very well as I had never been a sport, hobby type of person. No kids/grandchildren either, which absorbs an amazing amount of parent’s energy and time – whatever the kid’s age I observe. The combination of this lack of retirement planning and clear vision for the future, feelings of loneliness and isolation and the strangeness of a new country brought about a outcome that was a far reality from the idyllic life in those retirement articles.
Part of a “package” of decisions I made, which formed the basis for my staying here, included a move to Chiang Mai where I felt I could better find my Thai feet in this large expat retirement village 🙂 We lived there for twelve months and the distractions of exploring the city and surrounding area helped immensely in making me feel more comfortable in my decision to move here. For me this was a six month process. For others it might be less, more or never.
Being in a new country ended up both working for and against me because although I had some “core” retirement activities planned, gardening, learning to play a keyboard and Thai, I was also enthusiastically curious about my new home and wanted to learn and see as much as possible about it, its people and culture. That’s the plus. The minus is that Thailand isn’t as rich in big attractions as many other places in the world and I have had to adjust to that, which has been disappointing. You can have a very full two week holiday here but turn that into years and the possibilities are limited. Go to the top to-do’s in any Thai Trip Advisor location and the first ten will mostly comprise of wats (temples) and not much else. Compare say Bangkok with London on Trip Advisor, both of them big cities and national capitals and you’ll find 156 “Sights and Landmarks” in Bangkok and 535 in London. The top 10 for both reads as follows:
Now those of you who read my blog know that I enjoy my country of choice and this is not intended to put Thailand down. I just want to bring some reality to the topic. You may also not be the type of person who enjoys the “sights” and that’s fine. Much of my pleasure of being in Isaan relates to my beautiful house and garden (well Gaun’s garden) but I do love having a break and getting out and about with the camera. Finding worthwhile destinations for a day of being a tourist are very limited especially in Isaan. Back to the pluses and I find Thailand immensely interesting just in the everyday. Sit yourself down and watch the passing people and events – much more varied than London! No overturned sugar trucks or super fun local street parties in Canberra! It is the small things that can help make your life here enjoyable and fulfilling.
Isn’t it funny that for many of us we put more effort into planning a two week holiday than we do planning the rest of our lives post-retirement! Please make sure you realistically look at the life you want to create for yourself after retirement and do a better job than I did. Ask yourself questions like:
- Do you really enjoy what you think you do? I thought I loved gardening. It was only when I had my own place in Thailand that I found I was quite happy to hand it over to my wife Gaun, who is a true gardener. Gardening filled in time while I was in Canberra and gave me projects to balance a pretty grim work life. When I dropped the job the urge to garden went with it.
- Do you want to do more of what you do on the weekend e.g. golf? What works for you as a once a week treat might not be so engaging every day.
- Do you need to set yourself some sort of loose daily schedule in retirement? I do better if I have even just a couple of small objectives for the day. Maybe it’s taking some exercise, getting a massage, cooking a farang meal, doing a bit of DIY around the house or visiting the local Buddhist temple. A totally blank day can have you reaching for an extra beer bottle at the end or too many times during it.
- Strip away the activities that currently fill your life and ask “Am I happy spending time with myself?” You might find that you are doing more of that than at any time in your life. Or you may end up like Jennifer, the liberian at the beginning of this post with a social life the busiest it has ever been!
There are heaps more you can add to this list. My point is that maybe you should be making the list and it’s not up to me as to what you put on it.
So in summary what insights can I pass onto you?
If you read the online forums you will come across those farang I call “economic refugees”, These are the people who retired here because it offered a better lower income lifestyle than available wherever their home base was. End of story. They tend to be the ones complaining about everything Thai and enjoy getting together with other like minded expats to compare notes on how bad things are here. Go to a bar and listen to a bunch of older expats chatting and you will often hear all the same negative stuff. Please don’t come here and end up in this category. It will ruin that part of your life that should be the best of times.
So Number 1 tip and the most important is that you need to make your decision to live in Thailand based on whether you enjoy living in Thailand – if you see what I mean. Ignore all the financial pluses and articles like the one I started this post with that stated “While a cheaper, more luxurious lifestyle is the primary driver for the move offshore”. Instead focus on what your life will look and feel like here. Take into account all the things you will leave behind that I have touched on in this post so far. Grandkids are cute on Skype but it isn’t the same as holding one for real. Life problems for the people you love and want to support seem much larger when you can’t give them a hug and talk things over with a beer or glass of wine. Birthdays, Christmases and other special events are things you’ll see only through photos and videos.
On a more practical level you take your citizenship back home for granted. Here there is a constant reminder that you are a guest in Thailand (an alien in their official terms) and your continued stay here is based on following whatever rules are applied however frustrating that may be. A tropical climate may be great for a holiday but is it what you want for much of the year?
Do you trust the Thai medical system and can you afford the best care at a time of life when you are most likely to need it? I could go on and on but you get the idea. Once you have decided that Thailand is a good choice as a place to live then do the financial figures in detail to see how that looks. The two aspects work together not in isolation and the financial should never be the “primary reason” (in my opinion).
Tip number 2 is to assess what your Thainess “threshold” level is. If you aren’t comfortable in absorbing the total Thai experience in an out of the way place then factor that into your planning. Guys – this is especially relevant to the many of you with Thai partners from rural Thailand, mostly Isaan. As I wrote in my post “living with a Thai Woman” (Link #9) your lady is super keen to be close to family and the pressure is on for you to make her happy by moving to Isaan or other less farang friendly locations. I know you want to do the right thing but I do advise you to pace yourself depending on your tolerance to local life. Maybe you need to stage your involvement in Thailand as I did. Spend some time in one of the bigger centres, Phuket, Pattaya or Chiang Mai, even an Isaan city like Udon Thani or Khon Kaen and then head out from there once you are more comfortable in the environment. For those who have been coming here regularly this will be less of a problem. For me this was my second time in Thailand so it was all new and pretty strange.
Many of you will make these larger cities your only destination and final resting place (in an general not final context – well not a quite a few years anyway i hope!). With 27,000 expats in Chiang Mai you can find just about anything you need to feel at home, whether that incorporates a lot, some or a very limited Thai involvement. I hear of expats who mix mainly with people from their home country, buy the same food supplies as they always have (at a cost) at places like Tops or Rimping supermarkets and eat at farang restaurants. Expensive but it can be done.
Tip number 3 is to remind you of the topic title – “Who Will you Talk to?” This line was given to me by a reader of the blog – thanks Robert. It seems simple but is very important to your wellbeing. Speaking your native language is one of those things you have probably taken for granted (although I am thinking of you Vlodek as I type this and your move to Australia 23 years ago only speaking Polish).
You need to be aware that Thailand isn’t highly rated by anyone on its English speaking ability. English is taught in school here but that doesn’t mean they can speak it. In a similar example I was taught French at school and yet can still only ask if my aunt’s pen is in the garden, which has its limitations when chatting to a French speaker. The kids in the village that call out “good morning” to me as nighttime descends have a way to go!
If you have been here on holiday you will have been mostly dealing with Thais working in the tourist and entertainment industries who usually have some tourist English to get by. Very few to conversational level though. However once you are living here you are mostly reliant on expats for your dose of chat, whether that’s daily or less often. Once again if in a bigger centre you will have more opportunities to converse in your native language but remember some of the loneliest people are those that live in big cities. I have a friend living in Chiang Mai, who is the most open and friendly lady, but has had trouble making quality contacts in the farang community. She has found that some nationalities prefer to keep within their own circles and aren’t very open to “outsiders”. Do you remember the now famous Jennifer as I have mentioned her so often “a former librarian, recently divorced, who moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand, says that her social life is the busiest it has ever been” Good for her but be warned you may have to work at it and it may or may not happen. I guess but that applies to any new environment you find yourself.
In an ironic twist of logic/fate for many of us guys when we most need opportunities to express ourselves in English (or whatever) we then end up with a Thai partner, who often has a limited ability to have a conversation with us. We would be far better off with a farang lady in this aspect who would maintain conversation in our lives. Having said that some of the most silent people I have met are married to each other 🙂
My wife Gaun has a strong desire to speak English and has self taught to a pretty good level. She is far better than many professional Thais I have dealt with including English teachers! However if you have an interest in topics beyond the everyday then you will find that it is outside the ability of most Thais, including Gaun. Learning Thai is obviously an option and then you have 60 million people to talk to!
You need to consider this aspect of living here as an important part of your planning for where you base yourself. I found my move to rural Isaan has been very isolating but I have adapted. I was never a very social creature back home, preferring my own company and contact with a small group of friends, to the pub scene. Much of my release for expression here has been this blog and the electronic conversations it generates. I get to practice English (well Australian!) everyday and when typing a post such as this it involves more than passing on tourist type information.
Tip number 4 is to work on a retirement plan. The joy of stopping work can be replaced by a sense of loss and emptiness, especially if your job was an involving and enjoyable one. This really is the first day of the rest of your (new) life so make it a good one.
I hope I have helped rather than confuse. PLEASE make sure that you follow my advice and make choices based on (1) can I live here full time and stay (reasonably) sane and (b) can I afford to live here, in that order. I have lived in Thailand fulltime for two and a half years and since I have settled into life here I can honestly say that I have been happier than at ANY time in my life. It can be the same for you but it isn’t a given. Good luck.
In the past I have marked various Thailand anniversaries by writing about the good, the bad and the ugly in posts about living in Thailand. These contributions to the blog happened at at the six month milestone HERE and after the first twelve months HERE as well as a more general reflection on retirement HERE. In this latter one I write about the three stages of my time here, the holiday in Phuket, the largely “tourist time” in Chiang Mai and then the very focussed four months where we built a house in Isaan.
Some related links:
- Link #1: Sabai Corner in Phuket – highly recommended and you can read about it HERE;
- Link #2: Building a house in Isaan HERE;
- Link #3: Nong Khai on the Mekong HERE;
- Link #4: The East coast of Phuket HERE;
- Link#5: The Neighbourhood in Chiang Rai HERE;
- Link#6: Wat Tham Klong Pane an Isaan cave temple HERE;
- Link #7: A Chinese village in Thailand – Mae Salong HERE;
- Link #8: The Terracotta Garden in Chiang Mai HERE;
- Link #9: Living with a Thai Woman HERE;
- Link #10: The road between Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai HERE; and
- Link #11: Our Isaan Wedding HERE
- Retire to Malaysia: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-09-19/malaysia-targets-australian-retirees-to-boost-economy/6788522
- For the day to day life in Isaan please search for “Isaan – the Small Stories” on my blog. There are twenty nine of them published so far (Feb 2017)
- There are over 270 stories on this blog and I am about to index them properly so you can find articles of interest. Some cover the attractions of Thailand but many others give an insight into life here. Have a read browse through the blog. It is larger than you may think.
I am about to publish a separate post containing as much useful information I can find and add to over time on retiring to Thailand. Keep an eye out for that. Now HERE
A special thanks to those of you that take the time to comment or email me. The blog is an important outlet for me and part of my retirement canvas so keep them coming.
Thanks for reading.