In thinking of my premise for this article, I was reminded of two specific things.
The first is an interview given by John in the regular Ajarn section: The Great Escape. A more spot on and succinctly put summary of life in Thailand for foreigners would be hard to find.
The second was a question posed to me by a middle-aged Thai lady at my book launch event at Central Embassy earlier this month.
She mentioned she was involved with a couple of expat groups and she was constantly seeing expats saying bad things or being negative about life in Thailand - and she wanted me to tell her the best thing about living here, as a way for her to counter these criticisms.
When one is here on holiday, it is very easy to list the positives of Thailand. The weather, the food, the girls (assuming the foreigner is a male and single…or possibly even if not single), the customer service, the islands, the nightlife and the low cost of everything - when compared to most ‘first-world’ destinations - are just some of the more obvious fantastic aspects of a trip to Thailand.
I generally do not believe in citing statistics or ‘evidence’ to support my arguments because so-called facts can be manipulated to suit any argument by selectively choosing time horizons or highlighting certain results over others and so on. However, if any evidence were required, apparently over 35 million tourists came to Thailand last year so by any measure, Thailand can be said to be a popular destination for tourists, especially for a country with a population of 70 million people.
So the positive case for Thailand as a holiday destination is not hard to make. However, one of the themes I explore in my book – Settling in Thailand – is the difference between coming to Thailand for a holiday and living here for work, retirement or other long-term purposes. So the answer to the lady’s question was not as easy to answer when the context was expat life, as compared to tourism. As an example, if I look at the positive factors listed above when on holiday here, not many survive the expat test.
Weather – going to work in 35-degree heat is not that much fun, not to mention that hanging out in a park or spending any time outdoors can be challenging. And that is before we get to flooding!
Food – how wonderful Thai food is - but how many expats have Thai food every day?
Girls / nightlife / islands – Cheap Charlies / poorly paid teachers rarely have the money to live the hedonistic life they had on holiday. And finding a ‘real’ relationship with a Thai partner requires effort, commitment, local language skills, understanding and acceptance of local culture etc.
Customer service – when on holiday everything goes swimmingly but real life requires other types of interactions such as setting up / ending mobile contracts, asking for refunds / replacements or making complaints, dealing with medical staff at hospitals, arranging for air conditioning servicing etc.
Without local language capability, these can be tricky at the minimum and at worst have potential for conflict or serious misunderstandings.
Low cost – if there is one myth the book seeks to bust, it is the “you can live in Thailand for less than $1,000 a month” myth.
In theory one can; in reality, it is usually possible at the expense of anything enjoyable about life and even then, only if the foreigner is not based in a big city and several other factors.
The reality is it is very, very easy to spend money in Thailand because it is so consumer-friendly, and as one old British ex-colleague said to me, Thai money can seem like Monopoly money in the hands of a foreign resident and it is very hard to keep in mind the value of daily spending.
The answer to the question of the best thing about Thailand for expats is, in my opinion, less to do with the above factors and more to do with intangible and subtle aspects of life in Thailand that only become apparent over time and crystal clear if and when the foreigner returns home and can place the Thailand experience in context.
Free to live your life
Hence, when asked, I offered the answer: the best thing about life in Thailand is the freedom of lifestyle Thailand offers. Or to put it in an economics context, the libertarian nature of the economy and society in Thailand is the real, underlying aspect of life in Thailand that foreigners find so exhilarating - often without realising that is the real reason.
Life in Thailand for foreigners is enjoyable because they can live in a way they could never do back home. They can live without being judged or interfered with or have much social pressure.
As long as they stay within the law, they can do what they want in a country that is more permissive and laid back than back home. They are generally ignored by local people the more they choose to try to blend in and reduce their conspicuousness by speaking more softly, learning the language and checking their body language etc.
Thailand life is based on a ‘live and let live’ principle – people do not question your behaviour or ‘poke their nose in’ anywhere near as much as in the West.
People expect you to mind your own business and they return the favour by doing the same.
In terms of economics, again, the free market, libertarian way supply and demand interact is apparent to anyone who has lived here for any length of time. Where there is a demand for something, Thailand offers a solution.
Yes, that solution seems unorthodox to an outsider at first but if works and helps meet the demand, Thailand lets people get on with it.
So taxis can stop almost anywhere to pick up passengers, motorcycle taxis go the wrong way up the road (or even on the pavement!) to get to the destination quickly and where there are people, there are street vendors with goods to sell. These are three of hundreds of ways the Thai economy is organised to be libertarian, responsive and dynamic and long may it continue.
One does not need to read Ayn Rand, or Milton Friedman, or Thomas Sowell, to get the point; just stepping out of one’s condo and experiencing life in Thailand is more than enough.
Foreigners often complain of the rules here but if one is fair, Thailand is often more flexible than back home.
Take opening a bank account for instance
Many foreigners struggle to open a bank account in Thailand and get frustrated, but from what I remember, opening an account back home required the same or more documentation, and from what I have observed, foreign workers in the UK are treated with more disdain by bank employees than here in Thailand.
Not having proof of address is unacceptable in the UK even if there are good reasons for not having it - and ‘the rules are the rules’.
In Thailand, with a bit of subtlety and the help of a Thai partner and being willing to try more than one bank in areas with large numbers of foreigners, usually yields a positive result. Thailand finds a way to allow common sense to prevail and allow business to flow smoothly. “Computer says No” is less of an issue here if the person enquiring speaks Thai, enquires politely, with humility and is willing to be flexible in return.
Of course, the flip side of the positive benefits of libertarianism is that the culture can seem more individualistic. One may assume everyone is out for themselves and a foreigner can find Thailand a lonely place at times.
Being left alone and having less social pressure than back home can be fantastic but on the other hand, ‘always being the foreigner’, as John mentioned in his interview can be tiring. Over time, expats often crave the familiarity of society back home, hence the expat network.
Similarly, the flip side of a free market and low regulation, common sense economy is the onus on the individual to take more precautionary measures himself, keep himself safe and not expect social or state protection as much as back home.
Thailand is doing just fine
Foreigners constantly find themselves shaking their head in disbelief or bemusement at something they have observed in Thailand. From safety standards to traffic dynamics to just about anything, things can often be done in a seemingly haphazard way here. As the lady at the book launch mentioned - foreigners often go back home citing the reason that they “want to get back to civilisation!”
For expats who want to come to Thailand to ‘fix’ Thailand or act as a pseudo missionary or act as an enlightened superior condescending to the local population where they are going wrong, the best thing is probably to go back home. Thailand does not need a lecture from expats on what it needs to change – Thailand is doing just fine the way it is and if the foreigner does not like it…there is the obvious solution.
For those foreigners who come here and stay for a while, the free market, libertarian, common sense, independent and laissez-faire characteristics of life in Thailand make life here so rewarding. These are the things that underlie the exhilaration they feel in the first few months or years they live here and are also the things they appreciate over the longer term when they have had time to evaluate their time here and compare to life back home.
In his interview, John summarised these points perfectly. Some of the negative aspects he cited were more to do with where he was based (Pattaya) than anything else; living in Leicester Square does not represent life in the UK and neither does living in Las Vegas represent the US.
Regulation comes at a cost
For me, to cite one trivial but everyday example, every time I hail a taxi, I am grateful I live here. Coming from the UK and having lived and worked in Singapore, I could not be more appreciative. In Singapore, admittedly a country with a dynamic free market economy, a more orderly approach of taxis only being allowed to pick up passengers at taxi stands means I would see empty taxi after empty taxi drive by on my way to the stand, only to then queue behind five people who can only be picked up one at a time before it came to my turn. Regulation certainly brings order but at the cost of convenience and slows life down to conform with the regulation.
The best thing about Thailand for expats? Just about everything. Many things work differently here; it does not mean they are wrong, they are just different.
The easy-going, go-with-the-flow, patient, non-judgmental, adaptable foreigner will always be welcome in Thailand. Thailand will evolve at its own pace and to suit Thai people, not expats.
Those who accept this will appreciate the truly fantastic country this is, however long their stay.
Stephen is co-author of a great new book on planning a life in Thailand.
Planning your new life in Thailand isn’t easy. There are many hurdles to jump and potential frustrations galore. From practicalities through to cultural issues, from finances to fitting in and making friends, there is so much to learn. Luckily, you will find all the basics explained in this 282 page book.
Settling in Thailand takes a broad, insightful and balanced approach – neither too cynical nor evangelical, this book sets a precedent in terms of presenting a positive but realistic and non-judgemental description of Thailand life for foreign residents.
Written by two British expats in Thailand, and with interviews with another 13 expats from around the world, you will get first-hand experience, advice and explanations of expat life in Thailand. With a combined 150 years of Thai experience this book is the ultimate guide to making sure your move and settling in Thailand goes smoothly.