Home Again

May 1, 2012

The test to see if you are really committed to retirement overseas is when you go back for a visit to the place where you were born and then return to your place of retirement you say, “I’m Home again.”

We got off the Korean Air plane back in Chiang Mai at close to midnight, after about 24 hours of traveling.  And at that time of the night it was already hotter than the warmest day we spent in the States, and the fragrance of the night blooming jasmine was in the air, and people were smiling, and we knew that we had returned to our Home.

I don’t travel back to the U.S. often but with the birth of our two grandchildren in the past 20 months and my son’s return from Afghanistan we thought that this would be a good time. Since my son’s next duty station will be the Pentagon he and his growing family are renting a home in a beautiful suburb of Washington D.C. in northern Virginia. I think the house is on the same block as the Wisteria Lane of Desperate Housewives – at least it looks similar. That also makes it just about as far away in climate and culture from our home in Chiang Mai as one can get and still be on the same planet.

With that in mind I thought I would take this opportunity to compare and contrast the lifestyle that I have now with what I would have had if we had retired back in the U.S. Now that things are still clear in my mind it is a good time to do an assessment.

Weather: This April in northern Virginia was quite nice. Unlike Thailand, where the weather is basically the same every day, we had daily highs that ranged from the low 50s to the mid 80s. Right now in Chiang Mai it has been 99˚ (37° C) every day but today. Today it is 102° (39˚C). The difference, when it gets colder you simply put on more clothes. Right now I am sitting at my computer with nothing but my glasses on. And I am still sweating.

And the air! Wow, I had forgotten how a deep breath of cool crisp air could feel. It was like champagne for your lungs. The smog-filled hot season air of Chiang Mai is like breathing mud in comparison.

We got to the States just as the cherry blossoms and the flowering dogwoods were in bloom. Even Chiang Mai’s scarlet colored flame trees and golden cascade trees, in bloom right now and beautiful in their own right, can’t compare with one of the flowering cherry trees, a gift from Japan 100 years ago this year, when it is in full bloom.

One consolation I have is that I know that the weather in Virginia in August will be just about as hot as Chiang Mai is right now, except Virginia will be more humid. And in December Chiang Mai will be one of the most beautiful places on the planet and Virginia will be freezing. But Virginia is one of the good-weather states to be living in. Lucky my son didn’t move to North Dakota.

Food: Although I love my diet here in Thailand, I did miss some American foods.  So I made good every opportunity to get what I was missing. Here is what I ate, Taco Bell (twice), Brayers Ice Cream (2 half gallons, chocolate and butter almond), Costco hot dogs (many and daily, 4 on the first day), Popeye’s Chicken (only once since more than that leads to heart failure), and about 12 slices of Papa John’s Pizza at one sitting (not as good as New York’s but better than anything here), English Muffins, and lots cheese and whole milk. We also twice ate at an all-you-can-eat Asian buffet ($7, less than many hotel buffets here). I gained 3 kilos in 2 weeks. The math says that if I lived in the U.S. for a whole year that I would gain 78 kilos. I don’t doubt it.

Size: Everything is big in the U.S., from the shopping malls to the supermarkets (there was one aisle at Safeway that was about 50 meters long and contained only breakfast cereals), to the size of the cars people drive (a U.S. car’s door probably weighs as much as a whole Thai car because of safety regulations). We were in a small suburban town and the bookstore at the local mall was bigger than the biggest bookstore in Thailand. The houses in our suburban neighborhood averaged about 5,000 sq. ft. or about 1 ½ times the size of my house here. A one family house there would be enough for almost a whole village here.

But the size difference that is the most striking is that of the people. Of course we all know that westerners are taller and larger than Asians but something strange has happened. Americans have gotten absolutely huge. Seeing people in the 200 plus kilo range is quite normal now. In fact, I noticed a whole sub-group of people so large that they had to have assistance to be able to walk from point A to point B. The smaller ones just used walkers. The larger ones needed personal scooters – just to get around Wal-Mart where they were buying more food.

This brought back the memory of a Kurt Vonnegut sci-fi novel I read long ago. In it the Chinese had genetically reduced their sized so that they would be using less of the world’s resources. They were now only a few inches tall and because they were so small they would only use a small amount of oxygen and water and very little food. It would seem that in reality the Americans had gone the other way. Judging from their size alone those Wal-Mart scooter riders must use 4 times the resources an average Thai does.

And if I had stayed any longer, eating Popeye’s Chicken and Brayers Ice Cream, and Costco hot dogs, I would probably be riding a scooter too.

Other stuff: Commercials on TV for medicines that cure diseases I had never heard of (instead of the whitening gel commercials you see here). The commercial would introduce the medicine in the first 10 seconds. The rest of the commercial, while still showing happy healthy people living wonderful lives, would list all the possible side effects of the drug. Call your doctor if you experience any of the following side effects: Kidney failure, nausea, miscarriage, suicidal thoughts, seizures, dry mouth, impotence, low sperm count, death. And then for some reason it would list as a side effect the exact same condition you were taking the drug to cure (One of the side effects of an allergy medication I saw advertised was an “allergic reaction”. I couldn’t make this stuff up.) No wonder Americans pay so much for health care. It seems that it’s all these drugs that they are taking that are making them sick.

And speaking of TV. HD TV in the U.S. is unbelievably clear. I watched the Masters tournament and saw every blade of grass and every azalea bloom. The trouble is that when you watch a show or movie in HD you can see every pore and pimple and imperfection on the actors’ faces. I like my Thai TV where the soft non-HD TV picture (HD TV here can’t compare) acts like an air brush and makes everyone look like they have perfect skin. I can easily suspend disbelief. But the NBA was really cool to watch in HD.

I never went anywhere in a car that did not have a GPS system (you know, the one that goes “Turn right in 500 yards. You have reached your destination”). People even give them names. My brother’s GPS system is called “Joyce the Voice”. I don’t think anyone knows how to get anywhere without one anymore.

And the streets here are empty and sterile. I went out for a walk every morning and the only people I saw on the street where a few other exercisers and one or two dog walkers. Comparatively, Thailand’s streets and alleys are a soup of humanity.

And here is a really big difference. Not once did an 18 year old hottie smile invitingly at this 65 year old geezer.

All-in-all our trip was great. Got to spend time with my son and daughter-in-law and meet our new grandchildren. Pikun became a doting grandma immediately and was inseparable from the little one. My brother and his wife came to visit as did a nephew and his fiancé. And my best friend from college drove 7 hours just to visit for an afternoon. We also visited the DC monuments and Quantico Marine Base, and a couple of Civil War battlefields – and Costco, and Home Deport, and JC Penny, and Trader Joes, and the PX at Quantico, and of course Wal-Mart.

So, even though I’ll probably gain a bunch of weight again, the U.S. is still on our list of top destinations to visit.

Milestone: This last month we passed the 40,000th visit to our blog. I hope the musings on these pages have helped a bit with those in the process of making a decision on where to retire. Lots of luck to all.

Interview: Recently I was interviewed by the good people at Retire Early Lifestyle about retiring to Thailand. Check it out. Their site retireearlylifestyle.com contains lots of great general information about retiring, especially retiring early. The writers, Billy and Alaisha Kaderli, spend most of their time in Mexico and travel extensively. Sometimes they even get up here to Chiang Mai. They retired at the age of 38.


15 Responses to “Home Again”

  1. David Cooke said

    nice piece of reporting there!

  2. Ki said

    Thanks for the very interesting letter. I could relate it very well, since I live in Northern VA and in two weeks I’m heading to Chiang Mai for my son’s wedding. How about this, at a nice hotel including food for 100 pepole, flowers and a honey-
    moom room for less than 2000.00 USD. 🙂

  3. An interesting read Hugh!

  4. Keith said

    You say “U.S. is still on our list of top destinations to visit.” Is this the same as saying it is a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there?

    I have now been living out of the US for over 12 years and when I go back I just can not see myself ever return to live there for more than a vacation.

    • I went out for lunch yesterday with a group of “Old Asia Hands” from various countries, now living in Chiang Mai. Not one said that they could return to live in their own country. I know I would be miserable.

  5. I just looked this up (The Internet is amazing, isn’t it?), The Kurt Vonnegut novel I referred to is called Slapstick.

  6. Judy said

    Well, this blog has been great. I am going to Chiang Mai for a year. On a whim mostly. Wanted to return to Thailand for a decade and now seems to be a good time. All by myself (female, 58). I look forward to just learning about culture, language and keeping my mouth shut and my mind and attitudes open.

  7. EJW said

    Hi Hugh

    Thanks for the report. I have lived outside of the US for most of the last 40 years, starting with my stint in the Peace Corps in Korea. Every time I go back to the US, I shake my head at how HUGE many people are and I am no light-weight. I actually get digestion problems from the food there–though some of it really is GOOD. I do miss the ice cream. And a 5000 sq ft home? How in the world can a person afford to furnish, heat/air condition, pay taxes and maintenance on a place like that? If Americans cut down on driving, cut down on over-eating, and down-sized their homes, they would be so much better off health-wise and financially. People in their 50-60s who need walkers or electric well-chairs? Only in the USA. Scary lifestyle. You are about my age. It wasn’t like that back in the 1950’s. Remember? Sad, really.

  8. sidney leonard said


    I hope you can help me with this problem. I have been unsuccessful with my internet searches. My wife and I are trying to find out what long term care facilities for Alzheimer’s patients are available in Thailand. We are assisting a 71 year old Thai lady friend who has early stage Alzheimer’s and will be returning to live permanently in Thailand and will eventually need long term care. Perhaps you can direct me to a good source of information. – I thank you in advance for any help you can offer.

    BTW, I was intrigued by your compare/contrast comments following your recent visit to your family.
    So, in spite of the greater ease of doing almost everything here, you still prefer to live in Thailand. This is encouraging, as my wife and I intend to move permanently to Thailand within the next five years.

    Sid Leonard

    • Sid,

      A lot depends on where you are in Thailand. Bangkok and Chiang Mai have long care programs which you will not find in an upcountry village. I have mentioned Dok Keaw Gardens on these pages before (http://www.mckeanhosp.org/dok-kaew-gardens) which is an assisted living program. Drop them an email and if you aren’t in the Chiang Mai area maybe they can give you info on where she will be living.

      I have also written about this in a post (https://retire2thailand.wordpress.com/2011/04/30/when-the-time-comes/).

      There are also a number a agencies that provide round-the-clock home caregiving. I recently saw a school advertisement that mentioned their program of training caregivers. So this is becoming a more widespread problem.

      A very good friend recently passed away. She had MS and for the last 10 years or so was bedridden. Her husband took care of her all that time with the help of 3 caregivers a day. The cost was quite reasonable.

      Do this Google search (home caregiver thailand) and see what you come up with.

      Lots of luck and I hope all works out for you.


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