Chiang Mai, Thailand is one of my favorite places in the world for it’s great balance between quality of life and low cost of living. (2016 Update – I’ve recently created a comprehensive guide on finding a Chiang Mai apartment. My favourite apartment is only about US$150 per month.) Those factors also make it a popular destination for digital nomads and other long-term travellers. In this interview, Chiang Mai retiree, Godfree Roberts shares his reasons for choosing the city and talks about the business he set up there to help others retire in Thailand.
How long have you been living in Thailand?
Why did you choose Chiang Mai?
I chose Chiang Mai for four reasons:
1. It’s small. 160,000 people in the 1 square mile old town–the hub of life here. Another 1.5 million in the surrounding area support the amenities of a real city, but are not enough to create the negatives of a big city.
2. It’s better than just laid back. Chiang Mai people put fun first. They like to start work around 10 am, go to bed around midnight, and spend as much time as possible in between hanging out, singing, chatting, and drinking beer.
3. It’s a truly ancient city set in fabulously beautiful countryside. Even within the city limits there’s an almost jungle-like abundance of flowering and fruiting trees and bushes. Many people make extra income by picking the fruit that grows profusely in their back yards and selling it to tourists on folding tables at their front gate!
4. It’s primarily a temple culture: there’s a gorgeous temple on every block and people really use them. If someone is disturbed by a broken heart or a business setback they’ll just show up at the temple unannounced and be given a place to sleep, a robe, and a begging bowl. After a few days or weeks of temple life they’re chilled out and ready for action again, sane and happy. Stray dogs are equally welcome and lovingly protected.
I’ve lived all over the world, and I’m here because Thailand has one of the most highly evolved cultures on earth, one which makes every day a delight.
Thai culture expresses, on an everyday basis, compassion, beauty, tolerance, happiness, and a real sense of fun. Foremost among these virtues, of course, is fun. Chiang Maians find an excuse for a major public celebration almost every month (which blocks traffic for hours and sometimes stops it completely for the entire day) and they look forward with special delight to Songkran.
Songkran is a 4-day water fight held just before the summer rains, so the weather is hot and dry. People spend days preparing and days recovering–which requires considerable sitting around, drinking beer, and telling tall stories. Even the (plentiful) local elephants participate: they stand on street corners blasting unsuspecting motorbike riders with trunks full of water, enjoying it as much as the humans. Their aim and timing are much better than the humans with their high-powered water guns.
How does Thailand compare to other inexpensive countries like the Philippines or Indonesia?
Thailand is unique in that it combines increasing prosperity (the economy is growing 7% and everyone is benefiting), absence of beggars, and extremely low costs. For example, a nice Thai meal for two in a garden restaurant, with two bottles of Singha beer, served at your table, costs around $12.
Can you give a quick overview of the best places to live in Thailand?
I give a fuller account of this in my book How to Retire in Thailand and Double Your Income. Thailand is remarkably diverse: mountains with ancient tribes, legendary rivers, forests, and a thousand kilometers of white, sandy beaches. Here are some highlights:
Bangkok (Krung Thep): with a population of 12 million, Bangkok is the largest city and the capital. Cheapest of the “world cities” but at least 15% more expensive than Chiang Mai. More crime, pollution, etc., as you would expect. It’s hotter and more humid than Chiang Mai which has the advantage of being in the highlands. Big, busy, beautiful airport with skytrain connection. Very multicultural. Flooding is an increasing problem. Culturally and historically rich. Both Bangkok and Chiang Mai have excellent medical and dental facilities and cater to medical tourists.
Phuket City, population 80,000, on Phuket Island, a major tourist destination in southern Thailand. Housing ranges from simple to elegant, and cost of living is low. Snorkeling, diving, fishing, and much more. Malls, markets, restaurants, parks and nightlife are all available. More rural and isolated beach settings outside the city on Phuket island.
Pattaya City, 1 million in the entire metropolitan area plus 4 million tourists a year. Pattaya beachfront is a popular dining, nightlife and shopping area. Jomtien Beach is where condominiums, bungalows and hotels predominate. Good rail, bus, and taxi services. In addition to ocean activities, botanical gardens, wildlife reserves, zoos, museums, amusement parks, an aquarium, and a host of other things for visitors and retirees–of which there are many.
Khon Kaen, population 110,000. The educational and financial center of northeastern Thailand. The silk industry is important. There are several universities and more people speak English. Social amenities are adequate for a small-town-international-retirement lifestyle. The local culture is far less commercialized than the tourist cities. Khon Kaen is a highly affordable ‘university town’ for international living.
Thailand is known for its medical tourism. Can you give any examples of your experience with the Thai medical system?
I’ve had four encounters with the Thai medical system.
- After I was assaulted by a crazy farang (foreigner) the police sent me to the University hospital at their expense for a checkup. The staff were utterly charming and made a huge fuss of me. Specialists gave me every kind of test while nurses kept bringing glasses of iced water. I was reluctant to leave. They billed the police department their regular charge for me, which was $23.00.
- The second was with a Thai friend whose little boy had developed some alarming symptoms. I checked them out on the Internet before we went to the public hospital and felt I’d diagnosed the problem so I was curious to see how the pediatrician would perform. She nailed it, offered to keep the boy overnight for observation, and wrote a prescription. Elapsed time was 25 minutes. Cost, including prescription, was $6.80.
- I pinched a nerve in my leg and created a painful condition known as meralgia paresthetica. I self-diagnosed and self-prescribed a bunch of drugs. Prescriptions are not required in Thailand so I was able to treat the entire event–which lasted 6 weeks in bed–for $12.00. Thai pharmacists all speak English and really know their drugs.
- Annual dental checkup and cleaning, plus replacement of a broken ceramic, semi-precious crown. Superb service from a UCLA-trained, English-speaking dentist in a beautifully equipped surgery. Total cost $452.00.
How do you manage your visa there?
I applied for a non-immigrant retirement visa in Australia. It’s available to anyone over 50 with sufficient means/income. I will renew it annually here in Thailand. It allows unlimited exits and re-entries. It’s easy to get and costs about $200/year. Mine is handled by a wonderful British/Thai law partnership, Assist Thai Visa, since Thai regulations seem to change daily and I hate queues.
Have you had any major problems there?
The only problems I’ve had were with foreigners who believe they can behave badly and get away with it here. After being hit by one such thug, the police spent hours with me and subsequently tracked the man down, arrested and fined him, and deported him. Altogether a thorough job.
My other experience with the Thai police was after I lost my wallet, containing all my credit cards and drivers license, plus 35,000 Baht in cash: two months salary for a Thai policeman. The wallet contained no local ID so there was no way for anyone to contact me. But when I went to pick up my dry cleaning the following week–trusting that they would give it to me without the ticket–the dry cleaner told me to go straight to the police station. There an interpreter was waiting on the steps. She gave me a hug (!) and took me to the detective who had found the dry cleaning ticket and alerted the dry cleaner . Everything was intact, and my faith in the (grossly underpaid) Thai police was firmly established.
What are your approximate monthly living expenses?
HERE’S MY MONTHLY BUDGET*
Flat Rental (incl. water & electricity): 3,000 Baht = $100.00
Food (Eat out breakfast, lunch, dinner+ daily iced coffees): 9,000 Bt. = $300.00
Rent new moped: 3,500 Bt = $120.00
Fuel: 1,200 Bt. = $32.00
Internet: 600 Bt = $20.00
Yoga 3x/week: 2,700 Bt = $90.00
TOTAL: 20,000 Bt. = $646.00
*This is my current, bare-bones budget. It’s tolerable because I’ve been working flat out for the past year and using spare cash to fly back to Australia.
Tell us about your new website and business
The website is Thailand Retirement Helpers.com. Previously I was relying solely on referrals and I only launched the website in May. (I’d love it if fellow-jetsetters would critique it and send me their comments. I’m already planning the first revision).
Because I had wasted so much time and money getting settled here, I set up an Australia-based company to help foreigners interested in moving to Thailand. We run a $1500, full-immersion, week-long, residential workshop in Chiang Mai.
Because most people had more questions than I could answer on my website, Thailand Retirement Helpers.com, I wrote an eBook that they can download from Amazon for $9.95: How to Retire in Thailand and Double Your Income.
“Double your income” is the doubling of your buying power when you move here. It’s extremely detailed, and covers everything from Thai culture to sex and marriage to dental care. It also deals with the downside of living in Thailand. I don’t want to “sell” people on Thailand. I want to inform them, then let them make up their own minds.
Then…after people moved here they wanted something to do–preferably something that would make money. So I wrote “Making Money in Thailand: A Retiree’s Handbook“, also $9.95 at Amazon. I rounded up all my friends who had started successful businesses here and they gave me almost 30 ways to make money. Again, it’s very detailed–mostly so I won’t have to answer too many questions later on! We’ve got some great stories (and even business ideas that are going begging).
Do you have any advice for people considering relocating to Thailand?
Come for a visit. Look around. Email me, I’ll introduce you to people like yourself. Everyone here is more than willing to put themselves out for visitors and new arrivals. Read both books. Seriously. They’re deliberately cheap so everyone can afford them. Go through every page of the website. Watch the videos on the website: they’re real people with real experiences and really useful things to tell you.Take the workshop. People say it’s the best money they’ve spent here because they were able to integrate quickly, smoothly and inexpensively into their new lives in Thailand.