|Living in other countries isn't a new experience for Catherine; she's been doing it for so many years. Now she lives in Bangkok, Thailand, where she plans to stay permanently. Read her interview to find out why Bangkok is just right for her, the things she likes and dislikes about living there, and her passion for learning Thai.
-In which country and city are you living now?
-How long have you been living in Thailand?
I followed the tsunami in.
-When did you come up with the idea of living in Thailand?
After years of experimenting with different countries and cultures (all extraordinary in their own ways), living in Thailand became the dream.
Considerations: Decent cost of living; ease of travel; not too westernised, but with enough infrastructure to be comfortable; interesting culture; pleasant locals; assortment of education on offer; range of entertainment venues; wide choice of foods for eating in or eating out; tropical weather, yet without dangerous monsoons; top class medical facilities; and the cream, a plethora of photo opportunities.
I have to laugh as my search comes off like the children’s book, Goldilocks and the Three Bears - too hard, too soft, just right.
And I’m sure others have experienced similar reactions when paring down a list of possible retirement countries.
I was in the majestic Pyrenees (France) for two years, but even on a decent income (oil industry) living comfortably was too expensive for it to be a long-term home. Money didn't go far, with hidden taxes ultimately being one cross too many to bear.
Same goes for the UK. Even now, with prices in Thailand rising, there's just no comparison. Some expenses in the UK are outrageous - the almost £140 per year TV tax for starters. And paying crazy prices for parking everywhere drives me around the bend.
Although the US has an expansive range of lifestyles to opt for, none fitted my bill. With a decent cost of living (at the time), I was able to sample many states but none came out just right: too modern, too clean, with too many same same suburban mores back to back.
Moving from France to the tropical island of Borneo, I was more content than not. With no local taxes and the government covering housing, my cost of living was low. The weather was wonderful (constant 32° all year around), work was plentiful and the locals laid back. It was during my first year there ('94) that I discovered Thailand on a jaunt off-station. From that point on, I ran to Thailand many times a year.
After six years in Borneo, a leap back to Europe was overdue. Three months after unpacking my container in Scotland, I realised that I had developed a preference for SE Asia over the West. Paying £200 per month council tax did have something to do with it; not being able to afford luxuries I was used to in Borneo (live in maids, inexpensive entertaining, cheap travel) further aided the realisation. So after a year, back to Borneo I went, for another three years.
Knowing that Borneo was not a permanent option (island fever was a real problem), at this point I started to seriously look around the region for something more to my liking.
And while I loved living in New Zealand (God's country), it's too far from Europe, making travel a pain. Literally. And as I love to travel but dislike the bum-numbing experience of long-hauls, NZ was out.
I also fell in love with Australia, but it has the same difficulties with getting most anywhere from there. Another downside, both Australia and New Zealand are too Western for me. A sure sign of this is when there is no noticable need for the 'sidewalk mindfulness' practiced not only by Thai monks.
Singapore is perfectly situated but in their push to modernise, the city state is now mostly stripped of character. And with Singapore being too squeaky clean, it was, again, too Western in my eyes. With costs being a concern, there was the downside of everything from basic necessities all the way to buying cars and accommodation being markedly higher than in Borneo. And there's that island fever again...
Malaysia has wonderful people and offers interesting places to live with easy retirement opportunities. But after experiencing a Muslim country for nine years, I knew that being surrounded by a tight focus on religion was not for me.
Cambodia and Vietnam – even though both are perfect backdrops for photo opportunities, when it comes to a comfortable infrastructure with enough to keep my attention, they have a ways to go before being just right.
I lived in Japan as a child but now it's too expensive, too busy, too focused on attaining that modern, upwardly mobile society. A pity, as the countryside has an amazing beauty!
Two visits to India and I knew it would be too uncomfortable on too many angles (but I do fancy the impressive photography opportunities).
Tsunamis, bird flu, coups and Yellow Shirts aside, Thailand is just right. With its low cost of living, fun-loving locals, inspiring scenery, peppery politics, excellent food and comfortable accommodation, Thailand is both a writer and photographer's heaven, with just enough of everything to keep me stimulated.
-Was it hard to get a visa or a work permit?
No. If you are a teacher or work for a corporation, the company handles the paperwork. If 50 and over, getting a retirement visa is an easy option (although you’ll need to do your own paperwork).
-How do you make your living in Thailand? Do you have any type of income generated?
I don’t work in Thailand, although I do prefer to call myself semi-retired rather than retired since being retired the way I'm going about it is hard work.
When opening a company that's physically in Thailand, the bureaucracy can hold you back. Same as Borneo, you need a local partner to open a business. Unlike Borneo, the process is much more convoluted, with the very real possibility of financial risk at some point in the venture.
-Do you speak Thai and do you think it's important to speak the local language? Please add your thoughts on local customs and whether it's important for expats to respect/observe local customs.
I'm learning Thai (the reason for my site – Women Learn Thai). And I have no doubts that the process will be a long and fruitful one for me.
Do I feel it's important to learn the local language? Certainly. Maybe not in locations such as Borneo or Singapore where the majority of the locals speak English as a second language, but absolutely for a country such as Thailand. Without a working knowledge of the Thai language, you'll miss out on the real essence of the people, religion and culture.
As for respecting the customs of any country you reside in, I feel it's a must - so much so that I was surprised the question was even asked.
-Do you miss home and family sometimes?
When I relocate to another country, I do go through a mourning period for the last place I called home, but that’s about it.
I was raised in the expat life, so home has always been where I’m living at the moment. So I guess my answer is no to missing the country where I was born but yes to missing close family and friends left behind.
And as my relatives are also in far-flung places, moving to be closer is totally out. Phone, email and travel are the answer. I haven't had much luck with skype (it keeps breaking contact) and since long distance charges are cheap from Thailand, I don't bother trying anymore.
-Do you have other plans for the future?
Who knows what life will bring, but the plan is to stay in Thailand permanently.
For business, I'll just have to see how long I can last not working (I'm a workaholic so lazing around doesn't suit my nature). Right now I've filled my hours sufficiently with the different learning opportunities available – Thai language and culture, photography and travel writing.
-What about housing, have you bought, or are you renting a home? How much do you pay for it?
After living in different locations around Bangkok for the first couple of years, I finally settled in a quiet part of town with close BTS (Sky train) access. At first I rented. Then satisfied with the location, I searched through backstreets for a suitable condo to purchase. Before moving in I had it renovated (an experience I wouldn't want to repeat anytime soon).
As Bangkok has no recognisable zoning, housing costs are variable. A new one-bedroom 40-60 sq metre condo can run to 1.5 – 2 million baht. In a decent location (near the Sky train) a reasonable two bedroom 150-200 sq metre condo can run anywhere from 7-10+ million baht. And as with any country, you can find lower and higher on each end.
Bank loans for expats are iffy to impossible (and ever changing), so expect to pay 100% cash up front. The money must have a trail coming from outside the country so pay special attention to the instructions given by your estate agent.
-What is the cost of living in Thailand?
Cost of living anywhere is what you make of it, and that's especially true with Thailand.
A meal for two with Singha (local beer) in a small Thai restaurant in Bangkok can run around 200-400 baht. A meal with alcohol in the Sukhumvit area can easily come to 2000-4000++ baht. Both are equally enjoyable.
If you want or need to live on a restricted budget, in Thailand (unlike in the West), you'll find ways to survive quite well.
And if you surround yourself with Western imports you can spend a great deal, paying more than for the same products in the West.
One given is that each expat needs to find the balance that suits them best.
Do they choose to shop at Villa Market and Emporium for Western products? Or do they eat on the street and depend on local markets?
Most expats combine an Eastern with Western lifestyle, with the degree being up to their chosen lifestyle (and sometimes their budget).
-What do you think about the Thais?
Over cost of living, the locals are my main reason for moving to Thailand. I love to laugh so it's great fun to be around those who love to laugh too.
Of course there are exceptions in any population, but Thais will generally respond to a smile with a smile. And unlike in other countries, Thais will often smile first.
After a while you'll grow to understand the degrees of smiles in Thailand, and what a Thai smile really means compared to the West. It certainly makes for interesting people watching!
-What are the positive and negative aspects of living in Thailand?
- Money goes further.
- Maids are inexpensive.
- Thais spell as badly as I do.
- Less stress in their mai bpen rai culture.
- In my opinion, the best local food of any country.
- Beautiful scenery, with unexpected pleasures.
- Dramatic rainstorms, so no more wimpy British rain!
- Decent enough entertainment (Bangkok).
- Cheaper overseas travel (from Thailand to elsewhere).
- Amazing what one can get delivered (Bangkok).
- Medical facilities are excellent (for the most part).
- Enough Western products to get by.
- Fantastic shopping on the streets.
- No major problems with mail (knock on wood).
- Locals are above the norm in attitude and ease.
- Weather is decent most of the time.
- No real need to own a car.
- Hibernation as a necessity several months out of the year (heat).
- The high number of undesirable expats attracted to Thailand.
- Corruption at all levels of the population, this includes expats.
- The tedium of expats constantly linking Thais to the sex trade.
- Pollution, disregard for the environment and littering.
- Insane drivers (but I semi-miss driving a car).
-Do you have any tips for our readers about living in Thailand?
The one bit of advice I'd give over all else is to keep your cool at all times. Western ways are not Thai ways and while Thailand may be the Land of Smiles, it's also a proud country with face being a top importance.
I'm a huge fan of reading about a country before deciding to relocate, so last year I put together a post on the Top Books on Thailand and Thai Culture.
If you read even half of the books on that list, you'll have a basic idea of what makes Thailand. But another given is that the advice may not sink in for a couple of years. If even that.
-Do you have any favorite Web sites or blogs about Thailand?
In alphabetical order…
If you want to know what’s happening in Thailand, 2bangkok.com covers that and more. Don’t miss their extensive archives.
Catherine Wentworth: Photography
This is where I post my attempts at photography. Although other countries are included, the main focus is Thailand.
Expat Woman’s Guide to Living in Thailand
Home of the well-researched ebook by Amy Praphantanathorn, a Western artist married to a Thai translator. Amy’s experiences cover not just the female angle, but apply to men too. Her book is well worth the purchase.
Women Learn Thai
My Thai language blog where I share all things about learning the Thai language, as well as language learning methods.
Before tackling the subject of learning Thai, I never knew learning a language could be so interesting! And btw men, it’s not just for women… well, as long as you don’t mind the odd mention of a masculine butt or two ;-)
Women Learn Thai... and some men too ;-)