February 1, 2013
I love living here in Thailand. I love the culture, the people, the weather, and the language. It’s not perfect but it is the right place for me at this time. But it isn’t the right place for everyone. Only a Pollyanna, or a travel agent, would call Thailand a paradise. Although I write a blog called Retire 2 Thailand I am not trying to convince anyone that this is the place for you. I just try to convey as much information I can to help you make an informed decision about whether Thailand is a good retirement destination. I’ll let you make that decision.
So I got to thinking about what might cause a person to NOT to want to live here. Below I have listed my top ten. (Be sure to read the Post Script though)
If you are older than 50 and have $27,000 to lay down in a Thai bank account (twice that if you and your non-Thai spouse want to retire here), or have a pension of about $2,200 per month (each), then you can get a one year retirement visa to stay in Thailand – but you better not try working or even volunteering here. For that you need a work permit, something that those on retirement visas are not eligible for.
If you are married to a Thai or have children who are part Thai then you can stay for about half of the above on a spousal support visa.
And whatever visa you are lucky to get you will still have to report to Immigration every 90 days. You don’t do it, then you will be invited to leave the country.
Under 50 and not married to a Thai, or maybe you don’t have a big chunk of change to lock up in a Thai bank? Then you can do like lots of Expats in the same boat; they stay here for 30 – 90 days at a time and then have to travel to a border, cross over and turn around, and walk back in. And a couple months later, get up and do it again. This is referred to as a “visa run”.
Other countries, even here in SE Asia, are happy to welcome retirees without these draconian visa rules.
The weather is great for about 3 months a year. That means that 9 months a year can be not so great. December, January, and February are usually wonderful. Then comes the hot season. A few years ago, when I was still counting, I noted that the temperature on my back deck was over 40˚C (about 104°F) every day for 6 weeks in a row, with no break. They don’t call it the hot season for nothing. It isn’t that bad every year, but who knows what will happen in the future given the global climate change situation.
The rainy season, although not as hot, can be humid and enervating and can make traveling anywhere in country a real experience. For the last few years the central, south, and Bangkok areas have been hit with “100 year floods”. Seems like 100 years isn’t what it used to be. Thai Buddhist monks are supposed to sit tight in their temples, do no travel, but meditate and study during the long rainy season. We do the same, and stay at home, safe and dry.
There are creepy crawlies everywhere in Thailand; some are just sickening, and some will make you really sick. Here is a list of just some of the animals I have found in and around our garden.
- Cobras (Indian, Spitting, and King)
- Banded krait and various tree vipers (not all snakes are poisonous but lots are)
- Pythons (10’ plus is common)
- Monitor lizards (can administer a nasty, easily infected bite)
- Mongooses (chickens and ducks beware)
- Bamboo rat (can weigh up to 4 kilos)
- Scorpions (the large black kind and the small more dangerous red kind)
- Centipedes (painful and poisonous bite)
- Red weaver ants (very irritating bite)
- Small red fire ants (tiny, but they swarm, and their bites are excruciating)
- Cockroaches (the huge flying kind, love to get stuck in your hair)
- Swarming flying termites (millions come out on a rainy season evening)
- Stinging Caterpillars (just a brush by one of these feels like a blow torch hit you)
And that’s just my house.
It’s the tropics here so of course there are lots and lots of insects. As an example, there are more than 3,000 different species of ants that live just in bamboo. And we have lots of bamboo. And they all seem to want to build their nests in my kitchen cabinets. And termites just feast on any wood inside and outside our house. And let’s not forget the mosquitoes that buzz in your ears keeping you awake all night. They also bring us such fun offerings as dengue fever, encephalitis, and malaria. Luckily we have house geckos that crawl all over our walls and help keep the mosquito population controlled a bit. And then there are the mites and ticks and other biting insects that give us scabies and other fun stuff that make scratching a seemingly continuous occupation.
4. Real Estate
You cannot own land here. You can buy a condo though, and many people do. Others get around the land buying restrictions by putting it in the name of a Thai (friend, wife, girlfriend, lawyer), which is often a really bad idea. Just close your eyes and imagine. I bet you will come up with 10 things that could go wrong with that system.
Here is one of the big mistakes those thinking to invest in Thai real estate make. They think that real estate follows some basic laws of economics – you buy today, the prices rise, and you then sell for a profit. In Thailand it doesn’t work that way. First, Thais look at a house that has already been lived in as a “used house”. And just like it is with used cars, Thais would rather buy new. And second, there is such a boom in home and condo building that you can easily buy a new home as cheaply as a “used” one.
I have always recommended renting and keeping your money liquid. But if you plan to buy a house or condo, plan to live in it forever – unless you can convince a new Expat to take it off your hands.
Since the 1932 revolution that created a new government, there have been at least 18 coups (depending on how you count coups). And there have been 17 different versions of a constitution. Couple the instability of the central government with the unrest in the south, and you have a pretty volatile political situation.
Your foreign money is worth less every day. When we first started coming here about 10 years ago the exchange rate was more than 40 baht to the dollar. As of today it is 29.4 baht to the dollar. That means that we need to spend, in terms of the dollar, more than a 25% more today than before. And that doesn’t count regular inflation.
A bowl of noodles was 20 baht then. Now it is 35 or more. And just about everything else is more expensive. Gasoline was 17 baht per liter. Now it is around 37 baht (currently about $4.75 U.S./gallon or 78 British pence/liter.) That means that with the change in exchange rate plus the inflation rate, where we used to be able to buy 2.75 liters of gasoline for every $1 we brought here, we now get about .8 liter for every $1. And things don’t look like they are going to get better soon.
Thai culture and western culture are about 180° distant from each other. Making a cultural faux pas in Thailand is about as easy as eating soup (not too loudly), or pointing to something (don’t do it with your foot), or talking about the new socks you just bought (apologize before speaking of anything about the feet), or calling someone by their name (honorifics, the equivalents of Sir, Auntie, Professor, Little Sister, etc., are always used before a person’s name). We are lucky though as Thais will usually just laugh at our ignorance.
Coming here to look for that life companion? Lots of luck. You may be doing what the old country song says, “Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places”. For lots of people, Thailand can definitely be the wrong place.
I can’t seem to go for even a couple of days before hearing about another male foreigner, often one well into retirement age, who has known a young girl for a few weeks, someone he may have met at a bar, or who waited on him at a restaurant, and has fallen head over heels in love. He buys her a car and a house. He maybe even begets a child or two. She then sells the house and drives off into the sunset with the children in her new car with her husband she neglected to tell him about. If it didn’t happen so often you would think I was making this stuff up.
It doesn’t always end badly. For better luck you might want to find a companion the old fashion way and avoid bar pick-ups (BTW, these are usually prostitutes and not just fun-loving ladies.) And choosing a mate that is closer to your own age than your granddaughter’s is always a good idea. So is being able to speak each other’s language. I myself have been married to the same Thai wife for over 40 years. We argue in both English and Thai. And she hasn’t sold the house from under me yet, I still have my car, and the kids still call me Dad.
The level of English spoken in Thailand is one of the lowest in SE Asia. Even though Thai students study English from the time they are in the first grade all the way up through college, most will never have made a complete English sentence in their lives. Except for the truly educated, a few Bangkokians, those who cater to the Expat crowd, and some upcountry tour guides, you won’t find many English speakers.
So all you have to do is learn Thai, right? Thai isn’t the hardest language in the world to learn but it sure ain’t easy. The Thai alphabet has 44 consonants and 32 vowels, and about half of the alphabet is unpronounceable for us westerners. And because the Lords of Language didn’t want to make it too easy on us they added 5 tones. So you not only have to say tongue twisting sounds, you have to basically sing them too. And if you get the pronunciation or tone just a little bit wrong, no one will understand you.
One needs to protect yourself no matter where you live in the world. There are some special cases while living in Thailand though. First there is your health, then your personal safety, then there is protecting your assets.
Your health: Thailand has some endemic health problems that you should be aware of. Gastro-intestinal troubles are widespread and although much of the water is now treated you can still get some nice bugs if you are not careful. Here is a list of some nasties that many Expats are faced with. Diarrhea, dysentery, dengue fever, malaria, encephalitis, critter bites, various and sundry fungi, bacterial infections, and lots and lots of parasites are waiting to visit you. We are luckily that there are really good hospitals here that are well experienced in diagnosing and treating most of the stuff you can catch here.
Personal safety: Thailand is a fairly safe place to live but in some of the tourist areas there are people who prey on the unwary. Although not as bad as places like Rome, there are some pretty good pickpockets and purse snatch artists here. And if you want to avoid the occasional street violence then it is best not to be walking around drunk in the AM when most of these occur. You might want to avoid any bar fights too. A lot of violence is perpetrated by one Expat on another.
But the biggest threat to your safety is the roads in Thailand. As a pedestrian, no one will stop for you to let you cross the road. And if you try someone might just run you down. Pedestrians have no right of way here.
Riding a motorcycle can be really dangerous but the danger can be mitigated by wearing a helmet and driving very slowly. Almost all the accidents I hear about are caused by the motorcycle rider himself, going too fast, driving drunk, in the AM, and without a helmet. Once I even saw a tourist driving helmetless and shoeless. Emergency room: we have another visitor.
You want to be safe on the roads here, always look six ways before entering traffic, always let the other guy go first, drive really slowly and carefully, never drink and drive, but figure that everyone else has ignored the above suggestions.
Protecting your assets: Just like anywhere, there are scam artist just waiting for you to give them your money. These scam artists sometimes come in the guise of the younger woman who is “in love” with you, a trusted business partner, your honest looking landlord, the jovial Tuk Tuk driver, or the friendly Jet Ski rental guy. Most scammers work on the premise that you are greedy or just plain stupid. You may be silly enough to believe that the nubile young thing really loves you for your good looks and personality, or that putting all your business assets into a partner’s name to get a big return on your investment is a good idea, or that your landlord would never sue you for damage to his property that you never made, or that funny Tuk Tuk driver would never overcharge you, or that even though you have heard that all jet ski rental guys will try to rip you off by claiming thousands of dollars in damage to their property, that this one time it will be different.
I don’t think that Thais are any more dishonest than anyone else in the world. But to be sure (and this goes for all aspects of safety) you might want to follow the same instructions that the referee tells the boxers before a boxing match, “Protect yourself at all times.”
But you know what? After not too long, if your incentive to live here is high enough, you’ll be able to negotiate the convoluted visa system, acclimatize to the weather, learn to love the diverse Nature here, find a wonderful place to live, learn to ignore local politics, find enough money to live on, adapt to and learn to love the culture, find suitable companions, learn to get by in the language, and keep safe. The challenge of adapting won’t be easy. It definitely won’t be boring though. Hundreds of thousands (and the number is growing daily) of transplanted Expats are already doing it. I have, although I still have trouble getting used to those giant flying roaches.
And if Thailand is the right place for your retirement, you’ll find a way too.