Thailand, an Obstacle Course for Seniors

August 1, 2015

I live a contented, stimulating, healthful, and sometimes even exciting life here in Thailand. But I am not a Thai apologist or a Pollyanna. I have written about many of the negative aspects of retiring here (Floods , Reasons not to retire here , The climate , The perils of starting a business here , and others. I don’t write about politics even though that topic would fit in here nicely.)

So I am quite aware of the negative aspects of life here in the Magic Kingdom. It’s not a paradise. And even though I think the positives by far outweigh the negatives, I believe that all prospective retirees should know as much about life in Thailand as they can, warts and all.

I just recently read an article from Chiang Mai City Life magazine, Golden Years in a Flawed Paradise about the many obstacles one encounters, especially seniors, while living here. There are many, and I wanted to elaborate on some of them, and describe how I deal with them.

Yes, sometimes going through a typical day here is like running an obstacle course or the high hurdles. Let’s see how best we can maneuver our way around them.


Air qualitythere are times when it is healthier not to breathe

I recently got an email from a runner asking “I’ve heard horror stories about the air quality in Chiang Mai. Are they true?”

Here was my answer:

YES. There is a period here in Chiang Mai when the air quality hits the dangerous levels. During those times, March and April, not only do I not exercise in the toxic outdoors, I usually just stay in the house with the air conditioner on.

The bad air comes from the burning of the fields and the forests. This is something that they have been doing for centuries. Lately though, with more people and more fields to burn the air quality problem in the north has gotten intolerable.

In the south it is wetter and they don’t burn as much so the air quality is much better. But even there sometimes, when the winds are right, the south will get smoke from Indonesia where they also burn. The smoke covers all of Singapore and Malaysia and sometimes southern Thailand, though not every year, as it seems to be happening in the north.

How do I deal with this?  The best place to be for air quality during March and April is the south, near the sea – and if the Indonesians aren’t burning then that is where we head. The other 10 months of the year the air quality in the north is quite good.


Sidewalksthis is where my years of karate training and learning how to fall come in handy

Since city planning here is basically an oxymoron, sidewalk curbs can be almost any height. That’s not really a problem unless you step off a curb without looking, which is something I often do.

Here is one story: Many years ago, I was out for a midnight stroll looking up at the night sky when I started to cross Tapae Road in Chiang Mai. I stepped off the curb, which it turned out was at least double the height of a standard curb, and because of the curb’s unusual height (and the star gazing) I did a complete summersault in the air, landed flat on my back, got up and walked for about 30 seconds before I stopped and tried to remember what had just happened. I wish I could remember the acrobatic experience but it is still a blank to me to this day. I am sure my karate sensei would be proud though.

If the same thing happened to me today I am not sure my karate training would keep me out of a hospital bed.

Most streets in Thailand, unless they are right in the center of town, will have no sidewalks at all. You just have to walk on the road or street. But if you find yourself walking on a real sidewalk you are very likely to encounter random pieces of rebar sticking straight out of them, missing or misaligned paving stones, piled up cement blocks, sand, gravel or other construction materials, deep holes, parked motorcycles, and hanging electrical lines; all these making the obstacle training course my Marine Corps son has had to run through seem pretty undemanding by comparison.  And when the sidewalk is unexpectedly clear, that’s where a noodle shop or roadside barbeque will spring up, blocking all passage and forcing you to walk in the street anyway.

How do I deal with this? When I am in town I never walk anywhere.


Crossing the street – zebra crossings and crosswalks mean very little

While we are still out on the Thai streets, you may find that pedestrians in Thailand are looked at somewhat differently than they are back home. I like to give the example of my former home, Seattle. There it is the law that pedestrians always have the right of way. Even when they are illegally crossing the street, you still have to stop to let them cross.

In Seattle, even if you see someone walking towards a crosswalk and it just looks like they intend to cross, you have to anticipate this and slow to a full stop to let them go first. Failure to do this will result not only in a hefty fine but often you will be forced to listen to a three-hour lecture on safe driving.

Not so much in Thailand.

Here the pedestrian has almost no rights at all, lowest on the food chain. Even if you are at a crosswalk or zebra crossing you will have to wait for a break in traffic to cross. No one will stop for you. It won’t matter if you are blind, pregnant, holding children, handicapped, or older than dirt like I am, no one will stop for you.

How do I deal with this? Since I don’t walk much as I said, this isn’t a frequent problem for me. But occasionally I do have to cross a street. The way to do this is to stick your hand out, make eye contact with the driver, walk slowly into the street keeping your hand out, palm pointing towards the driver, and when you are far enough out there that the driver is forced to stop then you can cross. But watch for those motorcycles and other cars that just might be swerving around the stopped car since they would never think that a car would ever stop for a walker.


Public restroomseven when you can find one, be careful what you wish for; your knees might not thank you

Still out on the street, and now looking for a public restroom here in Thailand. You’ll be looking for a long time. There aren’t any. Shopping malls, supermarkets, hospitals, national parks, train and bus stations, and all temples will have restrooms open to the public, as will almost all restaurants. If you have to go, look for one of these.

But many restrooms you find will be of the “squat toilet” variety. No need worrying about putting up or down the toilet seat; there may not be one, just two places to put your feet and a hole between them. And unless you have been doing certain yoga exercises, seniors will find squatting a bit torturing to the knee-joint. Also, almost no restrooms will have toilet paper available.

How do I deal with this?  One of the most useful adages I have in my travel repertoire is “Pee while you can.” You’re at someone’s house and about to leave. Pee before you go, even if you don’t feel you have to. You’re at the mall and on the way home. Pee before you leave. You’re visiting a temple and are about to get in your car. Pee first. You get the picture.

And always bring a private supply of toilet paper with you. You’ll think that a bit overkill and silly at first, that is until you get your first case of Bangkok-Belly and turn around as you are squatting and trying not to fall off, or fall in, and look for the roll of toilet paper that is supposed to be there, but isn’t. I don’t have a suggestion about how to keep your knee joints from blowing out while using a squat toilet except maybe adding deep knee bends to your daily workout, and ibuprofen is pretty good for dealing with the aftermath.


Stairs, and playing with levelsnever take gravity for granted

Thai house and building designs often incorporate what in Thai is called “playing with levels”. In offices and houses all over the country rooms are built at different levels. Step down to the living room; step up again to the kitchen; down to the bedroom; just what our aging knees and backs love.

There is no reason for this change in levels; it is just customary to build this way. They also play with levels in office and public buildings. I have asked my Thai friends about this (since this is how they designed their own houses) and they have said that it simply “looks nice” that way.

Last week I was at an immigration office here and walking around with my eyes looking up to find the right window (not star gazing this time) when the floor suddenly changed levels, I stepped off without realizing it; gravity took over, and I almost ripped up my back. I was sore for a few days.

I have also had the opposite happen to me when the floor level stepped up. I kicked the step, tripped, and fell flat on my face, the papers I was carrying flying across the room; a perfect entrance into a crowded waiting room.

To go along with the level changes is the fact that in staircases in Thailand there is no standard height for steps and one staircase may have three or four different step heights on one flight of stairs. (The Standard height for a “riser” is 7 3/4″. I’ve seen them as little as 4″ and as much as 11″. ) For us who are a little older, going up can be difficult; going down can be dangerous.

How do I deal with this?  Watch your step!  It’s best to always look down especially when going from one room to another, and step gingerly. I always hang on to the handrail when going up and down stairs. It is probably a good thing to not be constantly swiping at your smart phone while walking. And you probably should leave the star gazing for sitting on your back patio.


Languagewhy can’t anyone understand me?

I just met a Vietnamese woman who is retiring to Thailand with her French husband. She asked about a few Thai words and could repeat them back to us flawlessly. Her French husband, not so much. Vietnamese, like Thai, is a tonal language.

I believe that learning the language of the country you are moving to will make your life so much fuller, meeting new people so much easier, and confusion about what people are thinking and meaning so much less problematic. Okay, easy for me to say, right?

We’ll, it is true that Thai is not the easiest language for westerners to learn, as our French friend above has found out. It will be a long hard slog to learn even the rudiments of Thai. But it will be worth it!

I really don’t care how old a person is. It is a fallacy that an older brain finds learning new stuff impossible. We just have to work harder. The problem is an older brain is usually a lazy brain – hey, we’ve retired, right?.

Most people, no matter what their age, can learn a new language, if the effort is put in. And this goes even for impossible languages like Thai. Check out this TED Talk about learning languages. It’s pretty good advice.

How do I deal with this?  Even after many decades of studying Thai I still put in many hours a week learning new vocabulary and phrases, and I am still working on getting my tones right. I am planning that a long time from now, when I die, it will be right after learning a new Thai word.


Buying clothessize matters

You would think that going out shopping for clothes would be a fun thing to do here. It would be if you can find anything that fits you. I am 5’7”, well I was until I began to shrink; you oldies know what I am talking about. And when I first came to Thailand many years ago I towered over almost everyone. I am still taller than most but lately Thais are becoming lots taller than before. But they are still tiny compared to most westerners. And so are their clothes.

When even little me goes to buy a shirt or underwear I am lucky if an XL size will fit. Often, if they have it, XXL is the way I have to go. And I am only 5’7”. “XL” and “XXL” have quite different meanings here than in the west. You normal sized westerners, men as well as women, will have trouble finding clothes, underwear, and shoes that will fit. Oh, they make them in western plus sizes here but they are almost all for export only and are barred from being sold in country.

How do I deal with this?  Luckily I can find the Thai-defined XL and XXL sizes that will fit me, but the selection is limited, and my 10½ shoe size is right at the upper limit here. So I buy pants and nice shirts when I am home in America (which isn’t too often lately). I buy twice what I normally would, start wearing half of them right away, and I keep the other half wrapped and with their tags still on.  I break them out a few years later. It’s like getting new clothes at Christmas, but unlike Christmas, I at least get stuff that I like and that fit.

You can also go for the custom-made and bespoke clothes and shoes.


Et. al.but wait, there’s more

Bureaucracies – Patience and a bit of luck as well as always prepping beforehand and bringing the correct forms and papers will get you through Thai bureaucracies like Immigration, the land office, and getting a driver’s license.

Utilities – Patience will also be needed when the electricity cuts out. If you are really lucky this will occur only once or so a week. It is always best to have a good flashlight and a bunch of candles handy. And off course the tap water will stop flowing right after you have worked out for an hour in the middle of the hot season and sweat is pouring off you and you have forgotten to use deodorant and guests are ringing your front doorbell.

Handicapped accessible – If you are handicapped, Thailand, even with all its smiles, will not be a friendly place. It never even crosses an architect’s mind here that ramps and widen doorways might help you. Public buildings are beginning to get better. The local immigration office was one of the first to be accessible using a ramp, and most modern shopping malls will have handicapped restrooms. Sadly, the sign in front of one of them here reads, “Crippled Toilet”, and just this week I saw a sign that read “Lame Restroom”. At least it’s a beginning.

Working and volunteering – Huge hurdles are set up blocking foreign retirees from working in country. The explanation for this is that they don’t want foreigners taking the livelihood away from a Thai. So work permits, required for any foreigner wanting to work in Thailand, are not allowed for those on retirement visas. “Work” here is hard to define. I heard of a person who was arrested for singing and playing a guitar at an “Open Mike Night” at a local pub without a work permit. Want to volunteer to use you skills and your free time to help out here? You need a work permit or you may be arrested and deported.

How do I deal with this?  Patience will cure most of these ills. Just remember you are in a third world country run by a military junta. There’s lots to do that don’t involve working or volunteering. Check out some of my past blogs to see what I am up to.  Fill tanks with water while it is running and learn how to take the Asian-splash-bath for times when a water buffalo wallows on and breaks your water pipe (this really happened to us). Always have your phone and tablets and laptops charged. You can then read, and talk, and watch a movie even when the power is out.


To conclude: All of the above “slings and arrows of outrageous” Thainess can be dealt with. They rarely bother long-term residents here and newbies will quickly learn how to jump the hurdles and avoid the obstacles that get thrown in their way. But at least now you can’t say that you weren’t warned.


10 Responses to “Thailand, an Obstacle Course for Seniors”

  1. ivan1949 said

    Great Post,, especially like the Ted talk, maybe it is possible ? Our plan was to retire in Thailand this past winter ( on a part time basis) , as I had been working in Singapore for 10 years so many visits to Thailand, I thought it would be no problem.. However, after spending 3 months looking for property, and finding that I could not afford anything that I liked, and watching /listening to my wife speak to her family (Thai/gossip/ every day/ all day,) while becoming more of an alcoholic then I already am, I realized this was a non-starter for me if i wanted to live . So back to New Hampshire, and have been loving it, because it turns out , I have activities here that satisfy me, such as cutting the grass, building a shed, cutting firewood, painting, and on and on. So for me, all of the little Thaithings that aggravate cranky old men are not so much a bother, but what is most important is for me, is to learn Thai, not live so close to the relatives, and live where I can do things? maybe a farm? SO we will return next April for another try.. Socrates said, “Know Thyself”

    • Good luck Ivan. All the things you found to do back home I do here. I gave up alcohol a long time ago and now my only vice is Pepsi. Why look for property? Why not just rent? Outside of towns you could rent a house with a big piece of land that would keep you busy.

      Today I planted a few trees, watered the ground cover I just laid down, fed my birds, chickens and rabbits, then went to the driving range and hit balls for an hour, lifted weights, did some yoga and stretches, played the piano for a hour, read for an hour, read up on the Seahawks on, saw my investments wither away on the Internet, and watched an old episode of Game of Thrones, took 2 showers, and just now read your comment. A typical day.

      April is hot. I would return in January.

      Best wishes.

      • Oh, I forgot. I also went into town to buy plane tickets for a visit home in October, and then took a power nap for about 45 minutes.

      • LOL, I agree with rating, unfortunately at the time I did not see that as an option.. This will be the last time we visit in April, as it is the 3rd anniversary of the passing of my wife’s father.. Probably visit Oct through Jan.. still enjoy the snow.. Thanks for the insight, really enjoy your Blog.
        Thanks Again,

  2. Bruce M said

    I’m curious Hugh. I’m sure you’ve written about it somewhere, but are you currently actually renting? I would think that oldies like us would feel quite insecure in a rental. At any moment the landlord could come along and say, see ya later, my daughter and her six kids are moving in.

  3. Hi Bruce,

    I have always advocated renting except in certain situations, and I describe the exceptions by giving my own situation. We have bought our house, as well as a number of other pieces of land. The exception, my wife, the owner of the land as per Thai law, and I met when we were in our early 20s. We have been married for 45 years. We have 2 children who hold dual US and Thai citizenship. And, very important, we still have enough liquid to live the lifestyle we choose.

    And unlike literally thousands of foreigners here who have invested huge sums of their retirement savings in land in the name of a Thai wife or paramore, I don’t have the fear that one day I will return home to find my house sold and and my Thai partner off in the wind.

    There are ways to guarantee that you will have the use of a piece of land for the rest of your life (check out “usafruct”) and there are agencies who will legally own your land but will allow you to use it.

    But if you use your money to buy land and house here your retirement savings will still be illiquid and the land can still be sold out from under you. The real question is if you have enough money saved to be able to buy the land and house (in someone else name) and still have enough to do whatever you want, live how you want, and leave what you want to those you choose after you leave for whatever is next.

    Good luck to you. If you feel you have to own, be careful and good luck. If you rent and someday the owner evicts you, go find another place. As the Thai Buddhists teach, nothing is permanent and the only thing you can count on is change.

    • Bruce M said

      Thanks for the nice response Hugh. I wasn’t thinking so much for myself, but in general, just wondering how farang retirees handle housing. I appreciate your very complete response.

      I’m very lucky. In a stable marriage with a wonderful Thai man, and we have already built a home in one of Bangkok’s reasonably livable neighborhoods, right around the corner from the rest of his family.

      From our house we will have a lovely view of a large pond across the street. In the 70s, a developer borrowed money to build on the land, but instead dug it all up for gravel, sold the gravel, and skipped town. The result was a hole about a kilometer in diameter, which filled in with ground water and eventually turned into a marsh. The water is too polluted to swim in, but the local guys get in their leaky little boats and fish there. There’s a flock of about eight large white birds (storks?) that nest in an enormous bamboo tree across the water, and each day the alpha male surveys the scene from the top of the tree, and decides where the group will hang out that day. I watch all this from our balcony while drinking my morning coffee.

      My last day of work will be January 8. Then we start retirement, or semi retirement. Winter in Bangkok, summer in Vancouver keeping my husband’s business going. Life is looking pretty good just now. I’ll need hobbies, and friends, in Bangkok. But after 35 years of medical social work, dealing with one tragedy after another, I may take a several month nap.


      • Good going Bruce. sounds like a great place and you seem to be in a great situation.

        Those big white birds. do they have black on their wings? are their bills a little separated? They could be open-billed storks. Great birds. Otherwise they would be herons of some kind. There are a number of different species. (I am a bird watcher if you haven’t guessed.) They all build their nests in trees.

        Congratulations on your retirement and lots of luck to you both.



  4. Bruce M said

    Thanks Hugh. The birds might be storks. I have a rather poor photo of them, but don’t know how to attach it here.

    By the way, completely irrelevant, but did you know that 50 years ago this week, Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” hit #1 on Billboard? Somehow I thought you’d appreciate that. I love the Billboard website. It shows every week’s top 100 from those happy days. I could waste hours there, and have. 🙂

  5. Bruce M said

    My birdwatching friend and I looked at the photos. We think they are white egrets. Would that make sense?

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