The Retire Abroad series inspired me to build a special tool for the FIRE community: The Earth Awaits. It’s a tool made to build you budgets for hundreds of cities worldwide, taking your family size, budget, housing needs, and a bunch of other things into account. I think it’s the best way to explore the places in the world you can retire– right now.
Periodically, I write a detailed article about the logistics and cost of living of retirement in a single country. In the past, I have focused on France and Spain, but it’s time to leave the continent of Europe behind and head east– far, far east– to the country of Thailand. I try to only write these detailed articles about countries I have visited, and recent trips to Thailand have afforded me the opportunity to experience food, culture, and even medical care in the country. In this article, you’ll learn how simple and inexpensive it can be to live a life of comfort and adventure when you retire in Thailand.
All prices current as of 1/21/2016.
Retire in Thailand: The Country Itself
Despite its status as a developing nation, Thailand has excellent food, lodging, health care, internet, mobile service, and access to incredible history, culture, and cheap travel abroad. All services are available at price points varying from staggeringly cheap to luxurious but still inexpensive.
Language: Thai is spoken by almost all natives, and it is the official language. Like Chinese, Thai is a tonal language (the same syllable can have different meanings depending on intonation) and thus can be difficult for many non-natives to learn. In all areas frequented by tourists and expats, English is spoken on at least a rudimentary level. In rural Thailand, it can be more difficult to find a proficient English speaker, but much can be accomplished with gestures in most cases. Language schools exist in all moderately sized cities, and entering Thailand on a student visa to study the language is a common method of procuring permission for an extended stay.
People: Thailand is an extremely diverse country by Asian standards. There are sizable Chinese, Lao, Vietnamese, Indian, Muslim, and Cambodian minorities throughout the country. In some cases, those minorities are well-integrated into society (such as the Sikh and Chinese communities in Bangkok), and with others there is some discord (such as the long-simmering muslim insurgency in the south). The overwhelming majority of Thais are ethnically Thai and Buddhist.
Tourists and expats frequently comment on the friendliness of Thai people, and the relative permissiveness of their culture. Homosexuality is accepted and same-sex relationships are legal. Transgendered people are also accepted relative to much of the rest of the world, but are still somewhat marginalized in professional environments. Standards of service in hotels, restaurants, and even in humble massage parlors are extremely high, and most westerners would find the kindness they experience unusual and delightful.
Thai culture includes a genuine reverence for the monarchy, and respect for the king is protected by law. It is critically important to refrain from publicly criticizing the monarchy, which includes defacing (or even stepping on) bills or other images where the king appears.
Education: Education in Thailand is on par with other developing Southeast Asian countries, but most westerners probably wouldn’t be comfortable placing their children within the system. Unlike the priority placed on education in nearby Singapore, Thai education is only mandatory through about age 15, or nine years of school. IQ testing at preschool age shows children with intelligence at international standard levels, but scores drop quickly as students age. Part of this drop may be explained by nutritional and health deficiencies. British and American schools are available in Thailand, and are likely to be the only schools which meet expat standards. For this reason, this article will focus only on those schools when discussing education in each city.
Thailand’s University system is highly competitive, and cheap by western standards (several thousand USD per year at prestigious schools). There are several highly regarded universities in medicine, dentistry, and engineering in Bangkok, with particular standouts being Mahidol University and Chulalongkorn University.
Climate: Usually hot and very humid describes much of the country, most of which is tropical. Many expats prefer the more moderate climate of the north of the country. A consideration anywhere where agriculture is prevalent is “burning season,” which is when rice paddies across the country are burned in preparation for the harvest. Air quality is extraordinarily bad at these times, and many expats and retirees flee either to the islands or to other countries.
Countrywide, the average annual high is 38° C (100.4° F) and the average annual low is 19° C (66.2° F). This is accompanied by a high level of humidity, often exceeding 70%.
Visa: Depending on age and resources, Thailand’s visa system can either be very simple, or quite tiresome. This discussion is limited to European and North American nationals, who generally qualify for optimal visa treatment. Everyone should perform further research before booking travel (or a move!).
For stays under 90 days, a simple Tourist visa is sufficient. This is a visa which permits a stay of up to 60 days in the country, and which may be extended 30 days more by leaving the country (many expats take quick day trips to Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, or other locations accessible by a dirt-cheap flight, bus, or train).
The next step up is a one year, non-immigrant visa, which allows a stay of up to a year, but only for 90 days at a time. This means every 90 days, this visa will require a “visa run” as described above.
For actual settlement, a retirement visa is available, which is a permanent residence visa. This visa is obtained by first receiving a non-immigrant visa, then converting it to a retirement visa. Note that the visa is only available to those over 50, and with sufficient income or liquid resources (~$2,000 per month or ~$23,000 in the liquid assets).
There are numerous other visa available (marriage visas, business visas, etc.) that you can explore further at the Thai Embassy.
Taxes: Taxes in Thailand are very, very simple for the early retiree. Thailand only assesses taxes on income earned in Thailand, which should be 0 for most retirees. For US residents, as Go Curry Cracker mentions, if you spend enough time outside of the US in a given year, your income back home is protected by the Foreign Earned Income Exception. This means you can virtually guarantee that you pay no taxes if you only spend a small amount of time stateside in a given year.
Political Stability: Thailand is generally a stable country. It is not without its challenges, however, and it’s important to remember that it is ruled by a military junta. In 2014, in the wake of political chaos, a disputed election, and an anti-government movement, the military took over the country in a coup d’état. They repealed part of the constitution, and appointed a parliament of their choice. Little of this turmoil has affected expats and retirees, and life continues as normal for the average Thai. Still, it is something to keep aware and informed of.
Safety: Thailand has experienced comparatively minor incidents of terrorism, but it is not unheard of. The Erawan Shrine was bombed in 2015, and there have been a small number of arrests of Hezbollah operatives suspected of planning attacks against foreign interests in the country.
The majority of safety issues experienced by expats relate to petty crime, swindling, and scams. Tuk-tuk drivers, taxis, and other private transport have been known to drive passengers to stops which they did not request, where they are generally rewarded with cash of fuel coupons when they bring in tourists. Some scammers may attempt to divert you with stories about how a given attraction is closed, then offer to take you somewhere else, only to dump you at a tourist trap retail establishment.
For the most part, the risk of falling victim to a crime is proportionate to the riskiness of activity. Those engaging in sex tourism, prostitution, or other risky behaviors are far more likely to fall victim to a crime. My advice: come to Thailand for the culture, cost, and quality of living. Don’t come to engage in any activity you wouldn’t engage in at home.
Medical Care: Thailand is a huge medical tourism destination. I myself visited to save over 50% on a large amount of dental work. Most expats choose to self-insure (paying in cash) because the cost of treatment is so low. The medical system includes both public and private hospitals. Most expats will want to use private hospitals for any complex treatment.
There are a proliferation of hundreds of small dental, cosmetic surgery, and other clinics throughout Thailand. Some are reputable and excellent, while others are of very questionable quality. For this reason, it’s incredibly important to research which facilities and doctors will be treating you. In good clinics and with good doctors, the quality of treatment meets or exceeds developed nation standards, and the price is a fraction of that in the US.
Surrounding Countries: Thailand borders Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia. It enjoys cordial relationships with all of them, and most are at least moderately politically stable. Burma is a bit of a wildcard, but is modernizing and opening quickly. All of Thailand’s neighbors are accessible by bus, and some by train. Still, the most convenient option by far is to take one of many discount air carriers on a short and very cheap flight.
When we look at a given city or town, we’ll look at the following criteria:
|Cost of Living||A numeric representation of cost of living relative to New York City. New York City has a COL score of 100. If a city is 70% the price of New York, then it has a COL of 70. This data is crowdsourced at Numbeo. If insufficient data is available, an approximate value will be calculated by totaling the values and comparing against the totaled values for New York City, then rounding to the next whole digit.|
|Nearest Major Airport||The closest sizable international airport with direct access to the USA.|
|Distance to Nearest Major Airport||Distance to nearest major airport in kilometers, and ease of access via train or other public transport.|
|Nearest Major Medical Center||How close is access to excellent Cancer, Cardiovascular, and surgical care? We hope not to face a serious illness, but everyone does eventually and it's wise to know where to seek medical attention.|
|Quality of Schools||What educational opportunities are there for those raising young children? If desired, is there an English-language school in the area?|
|Climate||Average temperatures and extreme seasons, if any.|
|Local Activities||Attractions and events which may be of interest.|
|Perfect For||Who is this locale ideally suited for?|
Most importantly, please note that these places are not ranked, objectively or subjectively. They are simply a collection of places where you can achieve retirement with a high quality of life and moderate cost of living. This list is in random order for that purpose.
Bangkok is the essence of a Asian metropolis. Street vendors, tuk-tuks, and buzzing motorbikes exist alongside world-class malls, luxury retailers, and opulent sports cars. There are few types of food or activities that aren’t available somewhere here, and thanks to Thailand’s cost of living, most of it is inexpensive.
One of the delights of Bangkok (and really all of Thailand) is the fact that cooking is all but unnecessary. It’s possible to eat street food or in very small restaurants for a few US dollars per meal. At that price, it’s actually cheaper to have all of your meals prepared by someone else!
The city is also the seat of the monarchy and a nexus of international business, so at all hours, there’s a real sense that things are happening in Bangkok. It’s difficult to get bored with all of the temples, palaces, festivals, exhibitions, night markets, and infinite other activities present in this major world capital.
Cost of Living: 48.35 (48.35% of New York City)
Nearest Major Airport: Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) is a major international airport with direct flights to most of the Middle East, Europe, and Asia. Flights to the US usually connect through one other asian country, but it’s possible to switch planes at most of them on a very tight timeline.
Distance to Nearest Major Airport: The airport is within Bangkok, and is about 25 kilometers east of downtown. It is easily and cheaply accessible via airport rail link, which connects directly to the city’s clean and cheap SkyTrain system.
Nearest Major Medical Center: Bangkok is positively packed with well regarded private hospitals meeting or exceeding international standards. Popular ones include Bumrungrad International Hospital (subject of a televised visit by Morgan Spurlock of “Supersize Me” fame) and Bangkok International Hospital.
Quality of Schools: The American School of Bangkok offers education from preschool through high school graduation. Tuition rises from roughly $3,200 to $8,200 per semester by the end of high school. The Bangkok Patana School is a British-style school ranging in price from $11,000 per year (Preschool) to $15,882 per year (Year 13). The Bromsgrove International School is a British school that appears to be the most affordable international school option, ranging from $2,669 per semester (preschool) to $5,764 per semester (Year 13). Obviously, Bangkok is not the most affordable place if you need to educate children, though it is slightly less expensive if your children are very young.
Climate: Bangkok is in a tropical climate zone, with monsoons affecting the city from May until October. The entire year is hot and humid, with average highs around 32° C (90° F) year round.
Local Activities: Bangkok is filled with Buddhist and Hindu Temples, among other activities. It is difficult to walk more than a few blocks without seeing at least one. The cultural heritage of the city exists sandwiched between high-rise buildings and other major economic developments. Bands, theatre, and other traveling shows passing through Southeast Asia invariably stop in Bangkok, so you are never too far from entertainment options. All of Thailand celebrates Buddhist holidays, and both western and Chinese new year celebrations are major affairs. Bangkok is the economic heart of the country, and thus the many foreign influences have all left their mark. It is easy to find food from almost anywhere in the world, get an incredibly cheap massage, or simply take in the sights, 24 hours a day.
Perfect For: The retiree not yet ready to leave the hustle and bustle of a big city behind. Those looking for a great base of operations to explore the rest of Southeast Asia. Those looking for every possible cuisine and first-world amenities at all hours of the day or night.
For those looking to have all the comforts of city life, but without all the heat and chaos of Bangkok, there’s Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai is one of the hottest destinations for both retirees and digital nomads on earth, and there are a lot of great reasons that’s the case. First off, the city is unbelievably affordable. Many expats report spending well under $1,000 USD per month for a lifestyle that includes a fully serviced apartment, a rented motorcycle, eating out every single meal, and even renting a spot at a coworking space with lightning fast internet.
In essence, Chiang Mai packs in much of what’s desirable about Bangkok (culture, activities, a viable working environment, great food, first world amenities) and avoids some of the least enjoyable parts (amount of pollution, number of people, hot temperatures).
Chiang Mai is not without its drawbacks– burning season is very real in the area and few expats can stand to stay in the city when the fields are on fire. If you are sensitive to pollution, it would be best to make plans to be elsewhere from February through April.
Cost of Living: 33.12 (33.12% of New York City)
Nearest Major Airport: Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) is the nearest airport serving major international destinations. The easiest way to get to Bangkok is to fly from Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX).
Distance to Nearest Major Airport: 400 miles to Bangkok by road, or one hour by regional airline.
Nearest Major Medical Center: Like Bangkok, Chiang Mai has several highly regarded private hospitals, but the one most commonly chosen by expats seems to be Chiang Mai Ram Hospital.
Quality of Schools: The American Pacific International School offers instruction from preschool through the end of high school for approximately $12,800 per year. The Chiang Mai International School ranges from $6,200 to $10,600 per year.
Climate: Though still tropical, Chiang Mai is located in the mountains of Northern Thailand. It is usually cooler than Bangkok. Daytime is still quite warm, but nighttime temperatures can be cool thanks to the altitude, and the city is considered to be much more comfortable than Bangkok.
Local Activities: Chiang Mai is filled with dozens of Wats (Temples) to explore. One of the best aspects of the location is the easy access to nature. It is possible to explore the forests and mountains around the city with little driving. There are many wildlife attractions (elephant, tiger, and otherwise), but consider carefully whether to patronize these businesses. The elephants are treated better than those employed in the logging industry, but that’s not saying much. Most of the animals live in deplorable conditions and many of them are abused to coerce them to do “tricks” for tourists.
Perfect For: Digital nomads, those seeking a young, hip, entrepreneurial environment, and people looking for a small city from which to explore Thailand. Those in search of more comfortable weather than Bangkok.
Koh Samui is probably the most remote (and most unspoiled) location covered in this article. It’s an island located on the east coast of the southern tip of the country. Koh Samui is very small, at only about 88 square miles, and it’s easy to get to from Bangkok.
If laying on the beach, enjoying a cool adult beverage (or any other typical beach activity) is your favorite pastime, Koh Samui might be for you. There’s just enough connection to the rest of the world (you can get a decent internet connection at a coworking space, or in a rented apartment) to conduct business, but mostly it’s a place to get away from the worries of the rest of the world.
Cost of Living: Approximately 45.0 (45% of New York City)
Nearest Major Airport: Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) is the nearest airport serving major international destinations. The easiest way to get to Bangkok is to fly from Samui International Airport (USM).
Distance to Nearest Major Airport: One hour by regional airline, or a ferry trip and a very long and difficult car ride. You should fly.
Nearest Major Medical Center: Samui International Hospital is quite popular with expats, but there are several decent private hospitals on the island.
Quality of Schools: Because of its small size and remote nature, Koh Samui has a somewhat limited selection of English-speaking schools. The International School of Samui is one option. Tuition starts at around $8,000 USD per year in preschool, and rises to almost $16,000 USD per year in year 13.
Climate: Koh Samui experiences (surprise surprise!) a tropical climate, though the heat and humidity are moderated by cool ocean breezes. Average highs are in the 80s F (30° C) and lows are are in the high 70s F (25° C). October, November and December are marked by periods of extremely high rainfall, with an average of 20 inches (500mm) of rain falling in November.
Local Activities: Exploring the many miles of coastline, beach activities, and water sports are likely to be your primary motivators for visiting or settling on Koh Samui. However, the interior of the island also contains many beautiful natural and manmade wonders such as pristine rainforest, waterfalls, and numerous long-forgotten temples. If you’ve come to Koh Samui looking for all the amenities of a city like Bangkok, you’ve come to the wrong place. If, however, you are looking to write that novel you’ve been meaning to start, or anything else that requires peace, quiet, and inspiration, Koh Samui is the ideal destination.
Perfect For: Those seeking a remote destination, far away from the cares of the world. Beach lovers and those passionate about island life. International fugitives.
Phuket, the largest island in Thailand, sits on the Andaman sea in the southwest of the country. It is home to a fast-growing population of Thai natives and expats. There are a huge number of retirees from the US, Canada, and Europe, so it is quite easy to find people who can show you the ropes.
Phuket occupies something of a middle ground between Koh Samui and Bangkok. It is an island with many beautiful natural wonders, but the encroachment of city life and many leisure activities catering to foreigners has led to development (and overdevelopment) of the province. You may be interested in settling here if you want the option to enjoy nightlife (which can be a bit on the racier/shadier side in Phuket) and first-world amenities, but you still want to be able to get to the beach within minutes.
Cost of Living: 48.57 (48.57% of New York City)
Nearest Major Airport: Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) is the nearest airport serving major international destinations. The easiest way to get to Bangkok is to fly from Phuket International Airport (HKT).
Distance to Nearest Major Airport: One hour by regional airline, or 425 miles (685 km) by car.
Nearest Major Medical Center: Bangkok Hospital Phuket is a comprehensive inpatient and outpatient clinic. Phuket International Hospital is also frequented by many expats and locals, and offers most of the same services.
Quality of Schools: Because Phuket has long been a destination for expats, there are many international schools available. The British International School of Phuket is one such option with tuitions ranging from $9,500 USD per year in preschool to $18,500 USD per year in year 13. On the other end of the price spectrum is Headstart Phuket, which runs $5,900 per year for preschool, and $10,000 per year for year 13.
Climate: Like Koh Samui, Phuket is within the tropical climate zone, with cooler temperatures than Bangkok year-round. Phuket experiences many months of rain exceeding 10 inches (250mm) from May to October. Humidity is extremely high (70-80%) year-round.
Local Activities: Phang Nga Bay (shown in the picture above) is one of Phuket’s most striking sights, but there’s also the nightlife on Bangla road, Wat Chalong, and the many entertainment and activity-oriented businesses on the island. If it all gets to be a bit much, you can always take a boat out to Koh Phi Phi, a set of remote and unspoiled islands in the mold of Koh Samui.
Perfect For: The slightly older expat retiree looking for a the safety net of a well-established, well-connected group of people who speak the same language. Those who enjoy everything about Bangkok but the traffic, weather and lack of beach.
Life in Thailand for many foreigners is rich and wonderful, but it is very different from the average westerner’s existence. It merits a visit to see if you like it before making any choice to settle down there. Still, the Thai people are warm and friendly. The food is fresh, delicious, and plentiful. The country is the cradle of an ancient and fascinating culture. Most of all, the cost of a comfortable (even luxurious) lifestyle is affordable to even the most cash-strapped retiree. Everyone should check out Thailand as a possible retirement destination, but doubly so if you are looking at your retirement years and wondering whether a meager pension, social security, or 401(k) can possibly support you in comfort. It can if you’re resourceful enough and would consider an adventure in Thailand!
Have you been to any of the locations mentioned in this article? Have you ever considered a temporary or permanent relocation to Southeast Asia? Let me know about your experiences in the comments!