Is Thailand calling you to become an expat? Come this way!
Thailand is an extremely popular travel destination, with its infamous capital of Bangkok regularly being listed as one of the most visited cities in the world. With low prices, stunning beaches, year-round great weather and delicious food, many visitors will invariably have dreamed of living in such a wonderful country. However, there is a long list of issues that you will face when moving from a western country. Many of these which you probably would not have anticipated or considered. Here, in this guest post by my friend Laurie who has lived in Thailand for 20 years, he will try and cover every possible issue that you will be likely to come across, so if you’re considering a move to the “Land of Smiles”, you’re in the right place. Get ready to become an expat in Thailand.
Thailand’s healthcare system is not very well-developed, with hospitals in more rural locations often being in quite a poor condition. However, there are some excellent, ultra-modern hospitals in more popular locations such as Bangkok, Phuket and Pattaya. Although they can be extremely expensive so you’ll need to make sure you have first-class, comprehensive health insurance. Indeed, to qualify for the “retirement extension” to a Non-O visa, you will be required to have health insurance anyway. Most prescriptions medicines can be purchased over the counter cheaply in a pharmacy. And the costs of visiting a doctor or dentist are very low. A significant proportion of Thailand’s healthcare professionals will have studied overseas, so will speak very good English, making life a little easier.
Thailand’s weather is amazing for a two week holiday. However, the constant heat may be a bit much for some potential expats. Luckily, almost all shops, restaurants and accommodation will be fitted with air-conditioning units to make things a little more comfortable. Indeed, they often crank it up so much in places such as cinemas that you’ll see the locals taking a coat with them. When you first arrive you’ll have to take extra care to stay hydrated and use a powerful sunscreen to protect yourself against UV rays which can cause skin cancers. Particularly during 11 am-4 pm the sun can be very strong, with UV indexes commonly being between 10-12 (very high). The north of the country is noticeably cooler, with Chiang Mai being popular amongst expats and digital nomads alike. And therefore, often more comfortable for working.
Siribhume Waterfall, Chiang Mai – A Great Place to Cool Down
The Thai people have a unique culture that is a mixture of Indian influences, ancient Chinese traditions and other quirks that are distinctly Thai. Thai culture places a very strong emphasis on the family unit and extended family members above all else. In addition, Thais are fiercely patriotic and proud of their country, cuisine and traditions. They have a system of social status. This is usually determined by how much money someone has. Sadly, the super-rich elite are revered, no matter what methods they used to acquire their wealth. The overwhelming majority of the population are practising Theravada Buddhists. They will visit their local temple, or “wat” several times a month to make merit and bring good fortune to themselves and their families. Thai culture also incorporates the confusing behaviour of “saving face”, whereby they are allowed to tell white lies in certain situations to avoid embarrassment. This can be quite frustrating until you get used to it. In general, Thai people are considerate, friendly and hospitable people and a delight to be around.
There is very little work available for foreigners in Thailand, with the vast majority of jobs protected for Thai citizens only. There are a few exceptions, most commonly working as an English teacher or a dive instructor. Even if you want to volunteer a few hours a week at a charity, you’ll have to go through the laborious process of obtaining a visa and work permit, with the amount of hassle making it not worth it in many cases. There are a few English teachers in Thailand who do very well for themselves. For the vast majority, the low wages, constant paperwork hassles and the lack of any real employee rights sees them eventually packing up and moving on. If you can work online, this is a possibility. Many YouTubers and digital nomads are operating from Thailand making a good living, however, this is technically illegal. But as long as you aren’t taking a job from a local then you are allowed to work online. There are a few niche areas where you might be able to find a great job. For example, if you are an accomplished chef you may be able to land a good job at an international hotel. Another industry that often employs foreigners is IT. For the vast majority of expats, the best option is to work in your home country until you can set yourself up with a regular income from your investments. Then make the move, or work for a multi-national company that has an office in Thailand. Don’t even think about working without the correct paperwork, when you are eventually caught you will be detained, deported and blacklisted.
Thailand is a popular Digital Nomad destination
If you move to Thailand as an expat, you’ll inevitably want to occasionally eat some of your favourite foods. Whether that’s a good quality steak, Mexican food or even fish and chips, and when that happens you’ll start to realise that Thailand is very different to the west. The vast majority of Thais don’t eat beef, and the locally produced beef has to be stewed for 3-4 hours to make it edible. You probably won’t be able to find all the groceries that you used to like back home unless you live near a speciality shop. And they will charge a huge premium on imported goods. Wine is another example, if you insist on the occasional bottle, you’ll be shocked to see how much it’ll cost you in Thailand. Of course, you can find imported and foreign foods in restaurants, but again, prices will be higher than you thought. If you can eat the local foods, you’ll be able to eat well for a few dollars a day. There are plenty of traditional Thai foods to enjoy.
Thai officials seem to be obsessed with paperwork. Whether you are wanting to apply for a visa extension, open a bank account or start a small business, you will be shocked at how much paperwork they request from you. In addition, everything will need to be photocopied several times and countersigned. And some documents will need to be notarised at your embassy. All this, adding more time, expense and hassle. Officals are very militant about the smallest detail. Expect documents to be rejected if they are creased or even if you’ve written in black instead of blue! You’ll need to keep all your documents safe and sound when you arrive in Thailand. If you lose your passport (and the visa it contained), it would result in a massive headache and serious inconvenience, not to mention the costs involved in obtaining a replacement. As Thailand is modernising and moving online, hopefully, this is an issue that should improve in the coming years. At the moment, the situation regarding visas for long-term visitors and expats is a constant source of frustration. To become a naturalised Thai citizen, you need to have lived in the country as a “permanent resident” for an unbroken period of at least five years. Then be willing to spend significant amounts of money and time as well as being fluent in the language. In short, very few expats ever manage to do it. Meaning that your existence in the kingdom comes down to the whims of immigration officers when you renew your visa extension.
Corruption is endemic in Thailand, across all strata of society. The idea of giving a little “tea money” to grease the wheels when doing something official is well known. Unfortunately, this harms almost everything in the country as public money simply disappears into thin air. The school system is an example of this, the government gives a generous amount per student. But by the time the money reaches the student, most of it will have been pilfered. It is not unknown for policemen or government officials to request a “fee” if you’ve done something wrong or your paperwork isn’t in order. Although the government is often quite vocal about stamping out corruption, very little ever appears to get done on the matter. Laughably, the National Anti Corruption Commission (NACC) has even been accused of corruption.
Thais like a drink, indeed they are some of the heaviest drinkers in the region. But for westerners who are used to good quality, reasonably priced alcoholic drinks, they’ll most likely be disappointed. Take beer, for example, Thai beer is of poor quality compared to other countries. The reason being is that the two biggest brewers are owned by elite Thai families with connections to the government. The government enforces rules that effectively stamp out any competition. Thus with no competition, there is no burning need to make better quality beer. As an expat, you can find places with imported, good-quality beer, but the prices are ludicrous due to the tax designed to protect the domestic industry. The same goes for wine, the import tax on wine is several hundred per cent to protect the local alcohol producers who are buddies with the government. Thus you are forced to either pay through the nose or settle for what is produced domestically. Another quirk is that in the majority of stores, you are only allowed to buy alcohol between 11 am-2 pm and 5 pm-midnight. And not at all on certain days such as election days or Buddhist holidays.
Get use to having a drink at a beach bar.
Standards of Spoken English
Despite almost all Thais studying English in school for several years, very few Thais are fluent or capable of a conversation in English. There are a couple of factors at play here. Firstly, Thais are terrified of embarrassment or “losing face”. Even though they probably know enough English to speak, they won’t do so out of fear of saying something wrong. In addition, instead of employing native English speakers to teach in schools, most schools will opt for a (much cheaper) teacher. On saying this, many travellers and expats to Thailand do find employment teaching English in schools. But be be prepared to learn to speak some Thai, there are many reasonably priced schools around the country where you can enrol. Before you even consider moving to Thailand long-term, you should at least learn the basics. As you would if moving to any other country as an expat where English isn’t their first language.
It is an unfortunate side-effect of the country being so popular with international tourists that there are a few bad eggs who have made an art-form out of developing more and more intricate methods of scamming money out of the people who visit. Most are easy to spot, but some can be very complex and many visitors get scammed out of money every year. No matter how astute you consider yourself to be, you can still be scammed. Whether it’s bill padding, tuk-tuk scams, the infamous gem scam or the more serious jet-ski scam. You need to be on your guard around people that you don’t know, and you shouldn’t rely on the police to be able to do anything to help you. If something in Thailand seems to be too good to be true, then it almost certainly is. Precious gems and gold jewellery are never sold at a 50% discount! The longer you are an expat in Thailand, the easier it will be to spot a scam.
Make no mistake, Thai food is wonderful, available on practically every street corner, filling and cheap. On top of that, Thais are pretty good with food hygiene, although you might find that a bit to believe after seeing some of the food trucks. Most Thai food is made with fresh ingredients and plenty of vegetables. But they can pack in a lot of oil, salt, sugar and MSG. Thai food is very often spicy, and will almost certainly be spicier than the Thai takeaways you buy at home. Expect to pay a little over a dollar for a meal at a roadside stool for a filling bowl of noodles with meat and vegetables. Just a warning, vendors can incorporate various types of offal into the food for the locals. Many Thai restaurants will offer western staples such as pizzas, fish and chips, toasted sandwiches, steaks, burgers etc. In the majority of cases, they will be “Thai-style” and probably not what you were expecting. Expect copious use of mayonnaise and/or salad cream on western dishes. But I will leave you to discover Thai food for yourself! After all, it is a part of immersing yourself in the local culture during your time as an expat in Thailand.
Pad Thai – a Traditional Thai Dish
Choosing Where to Live
Thailand has several great places to live with thriving expat communities. Particularly popular are Phuket, Pattaya, Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Each with an abundance of affordable accommodation and restaurants catering to western tastes. Bangkok is a massive, sprawling metropolis, where you can buy almost anything. Although the city struggles with air quality, has insane traffic problems and doesn’t have a beach. Phuket is famous for its incredible white sand beaches, laid-back vibe and lush tropical vegetation. Pattaya is well-known for its raucous nightlife scene, newly revamped beach and a plethora of high-rise apartments that can be rented for as little as 4000 baht ($120) a month. Chiang Mai, in the north of the country, is known for its more accommodating climate, its museums, cultural attractions and amazing scenery just outside of the city. Chiang Mai is also a digital nomad hotspot due to its fast wifi and cheap living! More rural destinations, including some smaller towns and villages, will be more relaxing and notable cheaper than places such as Phuket. In such areas you will find that you won’t get very far without learning a bit of the language first.
Driving in Thailand is extremely dangerous. Around 20,000 people lose their lives on the road per year, making Thai roads some of the most dangerous in the world. Many people drive without licenses in poorly maintained vehicles and behave very differently to drivers in your home country – or do they? Many visitors are hurt or killed on Thailand’s roads each year, so the safest option is simply not to drive at all. However, this is impractical for most. Many expats buy a small capacity motorbike, which can be bought brand new from around $1000 to get them around. Drive extremely cautiously at first, it’s not only the other drivers that are a danger but also the steep, winding roads with potholes, especially on the islands. Bangkok, in particular, has a terrible problem with traffic. Most of the main routes through the city seem to be clogged up all day long, which can be frustrating and time-consuming. Consider other forms of transport – the excellent BTS sky-train and metro systems are very pleasant, cheap and reliable.
Bangkok Traffic – Give yourself plenty of time to drive places!
Stray Dogs and Creepy-Crawlies
Thailand has a problem with stray dogs. Although you are incredibly unlikely to have an issue with them they can at times be a little disconcerting. Likewise, Thailand is home to many thousands of nasty little critters. Snakes, scorpions, spiders, giant centipedes, lizards, water monitors, hornets and the list goes on. Whilst the majority of these little pests won’t harm you, some can give a very painful bite or sting. You need to take extra care to keep these bugs out of your residence and out of your laundry. You should always check your shoes before you put them on. If you’re Australian or from another country with many dangerous creepy-crawlies this probably won’t be an issue for you.
Final Thoughts on being an Expat in Thailand
Thailand is a wonderful country, whether you are visiting for a couple of weeks or planning to retire there. The amazingly friendly people and the great weather means that many tourists are planning their next trip before they’ve even arrived home. Yet, holidaying in a country is a very different proposition to living there for potentially the rest of your life. Thailand is still a developing country with ongoing political problems and many potential pitfalls for prospective expats. Despite this, if you take a positive attitude and a willingness to understand the culture and how Thai people do things (and don’t lose any of your paperwork), you can have a very pleasant time living in Thailand as an expat. There are some negatives about moving to Thailand, as there would be in any country around the world, however, for most expats to Thailand, the positives easily outweigh them.
READ MORE: How to Spend 3 Days in Bangkok