This is the final installment of a three part series examining the desirability of expatriating or retiring in Thailand. Previously we have looked at health care, safety and this month we’ll take a gander at most prospective resident’s number one concern, cost of living.
Before we dive in, allow me to offer three observations as a sort of disclaimer and to pre-argue what are sure to be objections to what I have to say.
First off, there is no one measuring stick for cost of living in Thailand.
Not everyone lives the same lifestyle or in the same area. Secondly, there is a plethora of misleading information both in print and on the internet from publisher’s like International Living and Live and Invest Overseas that drastically overstate how cheap it is to live in Thailand. And finally, there is always some guy named Nigel or Hans at the pub who will beat his chest and tell you how you’re are paying too much for this or that.
For the life of me I’ll never understand this Cheap Charlie one-upsmanship. To you guys I just smile and say, “good for you buddy”.
With that said, let’s break down cost of living into some chewable chunks; housing & utilities, transportation, food and of course entertainment.
No place like home
After nearly 20 years in Thailand, my housing needs have progressed from owning a rambling 3 bedroom house with a pool to renting a cozy one bedroom apartment. When we first get here we tend to cling to our idea of “home” from back home. The longer we stay the more our living situation reflects our true needs. Thailand does that to you.
Buying a place in Thailand is a fairly straight forward process and good deals on quality homes of all descriptions can be had in just about every corner of the country. Without going into great detail about the real estate market I invite you to look at a few places that fit your needs here and compare them to the cost in your home country. For most of us, Thai property seems like a really good deal.
Most newcomers wisely choose to rent first and many continue this practice permanently. As with renting a home in any country, location is the key factor affecting price. Beachfront or Central Business District is more expensive. Countryside and suburbs less so. And in Thailand, region to region price changes can be significant. Central Business District studios in Bangkok can cost 35,000 baht or more per month. Even a small beachfront bungalow in touristy places like Phuket or Koh Samui will start at well over 100,000 baht per month. But a spacious one bedroom condo in Jomtien Beach can be had for 20,000 per month and a 3 bedroom house with a pool in East Pattaya for about the same. Try living in Chiang Mai, Khon Kaen or Udon Thani and things get even cheaper.
Housing costs in Thailand are quite reasonable and something is available for nearly every budget. When I compare apples to apples with comparable abodes in my US hometown of Orlando, FL housing is about 50% cheaper in Bangkok/Pattaya. Utilities costs are directly related to how many air conditioners you have and how often you use them. My utility bill is cut in half here.
Transportation in Thailand is about decisions. To drive or not to drive, that is the question. Once again, location plays a major role. If you live in Bangkok owning a car is almost a burden. With incredible public transportation and cheap taxis, getting around in Bangkok is extremely cheap. During my Bangkok years I averaged about $150 per month and I went everywhere. In strictly tourist locales you’ll need your own transportation or you’ll be at the mercy of tourist priced transportation providers.
In Pattaya however you could go either way. Live wherever you want and drive or choose a central location and use taxis, Uber, baht buses and motorbike taxis to free yourself from driving. Chiang Mai is a little more difficult and any further flung locations require a car or truck.
Many people see owning a motorbike as the ultimate moneysaving transportation solution in Thailand. If you are one of those people, please read Part II of this series on safety.
In any case, cars are cheap … insurance is cheap … taxis are cheap … Uber is cheap … and public transportation is really cheap.
Thailand is truly the only place I’ve lived where it is cheaper to eat out than it is to buy food and cook for yourself. You can eat high on the hog in Michelin starred bistros or grub out like a local at street stalls and food courts. Supermarkets in Thailand are about 30% cheaper than in the US, excluding of course expensive imports. Local Thai markets are cheaper yet and offer an incredible variety of foods you can prepare or take away. The trick is to stop eating like a tourist and get to a regular routine. I walk the middle path between eating Thai-style, cooking for myself and splurging on a pricey meal or two a week. My food expenses run about half of what I pay in my home country.
This spending category is the great spoiler of many an expat budget. If you like to drink imported liquor or beer, Thailand is expensive. If you like to drink wine it is really expensive. If you are a night owl that enjoys hitting the “scene” in Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket’s “entertainment zones” you’ll find it seems cheap while you’re doing it, but drains your bank account fast.
To be fair, one can be entertained quite economically even in upscale Bangkok. There’s lots of live music venues that are free. Movie theaters are incredibly cheap compared to back home. Art exhibits, weekend markets and film festivals are all thrifty and high quality. Gyms are cheap. Golf is cheap. Stay out of the tourist spots and you’ll find plenty of amusement.
Me, I’m a people watcher so Bangkok and Pattaya are Nirvana.
People who come here and spend too much aren’t paying attention to the three rules of expatriation:
1. Don’t live like a tourist. You can’t just come here and expect to live like you did on that first whirlwind junket.
2. Be realisticin your expectations. No matter what International Living says, you cannot live anywhere in Thailand on a $1000 USD per month.
3. Don’t be afraid to make lifestyle changes. Trying to recreate your old life in a new place is just dumb.
So what is the answer to the question “Is Thailand a cheap place to live?”
You can live very well on a lot less than you do in your home country.
No one should argue that fact.
My personal paradise costs about half as much as my former home town. “Half-priced Paradise” … I like the sound of that.
by Bart Walters