The 5 Best Places for Expats to Live in Thailand

bangkok-thailand

Thailand is one of the world’s most popular locales for good living abroad. And there are lots of reasons why. For pennies on the dollar you get a year-round tropical climate and access to modern comforts and conveniences, including affordable, high quality medical care.

I’ve lived here with my family for eight years now and there’s something special about this corner of the world. It’s an exotic place—orange-robed monks collect alms at dawn—yet it’s easy to live a comfortable lifestyle, similar to that of the West, but without the headaches and extra expense.

We dine out on delicious Thai food, go to the cinema, or, at a moment’s notice, take off for a beach weekend. And the Thai people are some of the most welcoming in the world. As expat Godfree Roberts says: “Happiness is a priority. Thais live much more in the moment than we typically do. And it’s to everybody’s benefit. The country’s greatest accomplishment is its sophisticated culture.”

And it’s beautiful. Think turquoise seas and white sand beaches, jagged limestone cliffs, beach-rimmed islands, mountainous jungle retreats. With that comes a whole range of lifestyle options. On a budget of around $1,800 including rent a couple can live well anywhere in the country. My family and I enjoy life in Bangkok, one of the world’s most exciting capitals.

You’ll often hear newcomers express their surprise at how easy it is to acclimatize, to find First-World comforts while still enjoying all the excitement of life in Asia… where ancient temples, golden Buddhas, and colorful markets are part of daily life.

But where should you start looking? To help you find the perfect spot, here’s a rundown of the country’s most popular expat havens, as well as a couple of “off the-grid” destinations for anyone seeking an extra dose of peace and solitude.

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Bangkok—Modern and Affordable

Thailand’s capital, a former Chinese trading port situated along the banks of the Chao Phraya River, has long attracted expats. Earning its place in history as an “R&R” spot for American troops serving in the Vietnam War, Bangkok has flourished into a modern and surprisingly cosmopolitan city, with gleaming skyscapers, luxury hotels, and world-class public-transit options. Today, expats flock here for the multicultural vibe and high-on-convenience, easy on-the-wallet living.

This is where my family and I live, and city life has never looked so good. For less than a dollar, you can dine on a bowl of noodles at some of the best street-food stalls in Asia. Spend $100 or more and indulge in a five-star meal at your pick of the city’s classiest restaurants. Enjoy live music in the city’s pubs or take in views of the skyline from one of many popular rooftop bars, such as Above Eleven on the 33rd floor of the Fraser Suites hotel. The capital also boasts some of the region’s best shopping, including a multitude of markets, North American-style malls, and boutiques.

The city’s large concentration of foreigners, or farang means there’s no shortage of social clubs and activities for interests as varied as tennis, language study, and theater. Bangkok is home to many of the country’s top doctors and private hospitals, and local expats appreciate the astonishingly affordable costs for top-quality care. For example, you can see a specialist for less than $50.

A majority of Bangkok’s expats choose to live in the heart of the city, along public transportation routes that ease getting around in what is one of Southeast Asia’s largest cities. Sukhumvit Road, one of the main thoroughfares, is a popular choice for its proximity to the elevated “Skytrain” and the MRT underground. Here you’ll find some of the best condos, restaurants, night spots, and shopping, including a large concentration of professional tailors.

Those who prefer a little more elbow room settle in Bangkok’s various suburbs, such as Bang Na and Nonthaburi, both less than 20 miles from the city center.

“I see blue skies often,” says Kim McGrail, who’s lived with her husband Rob part-time in a riverside condo in Nonthaburi for 13 years. “We have views of Bangkok in the distance.” Bangkok’s proximity to the coast, as well as a variety of regional attractions, is another reason the McGrails chose Thailand as their home away from home. “I love that we can get to Vietnam and Cambodia in an hour-and-a-half or less,” says Kim.

Due to Thai law restricting the purchase of land and homes in the country, condominiums are a popular choice. A modern, 1,290-square foot, two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo in Asoke, within walking distance to public transport, is listed at $218,700. If you prefer to rent, the same unit costs $1,120 a month. Try the suburbs, and you can rent a three-bedroom, three bathroom home with 2,580 square feet near shopping options and an international school for $1,000 a month.

Chiang Mai—Mountain Views and a Slower Pace of Life

Located near the foothills of northern Thailand, an hour’s flight from Bangkok, Chiang Mai is popular for those seeking a calmer way of life and a more temperate climate.

As the center of northern Thai, or Lanna, culture, Chiang Mai is home to hundreds of Buddhist temples, with a rich history that dates back some 700 years. The reverence for this history, combined with a mountainside setting, helps give the area its unique feel. A moat still surrounds Chiang Mai’s historic core and the crumbing remains of this once walled city evoke its exotic past.

With an average temperature of around 77 F during the cool season, Chiang Mai sees some of the country’s best weather. And here you have access to all of the modern conveniences and comforts of daily life, at some of the most reasonable prices in Thailand. You’ll find impressive dining options, movie theaters featuring first-run films, and two western-style malls, as well as a JCI-accredited hospital offering quality, affordable medical care.

Paul and Marjorie Hilts, who spend four months a year in Chiang Mai and the rest of the year in Colorado, attend to most of their medical needs while in Thailand, despite carrying U.S. insurance. “Health care is of a high standard and low price compared with back home,” says Paul. The couple fell in love with the area after a 1997 visit and have spent winters in Chiang Mai for the past nine years. “We enjoy the Thai culture and people, plus the weather in December and January is just about perfect,” says Paul.

“We belong to a health club where we go to yoga five times a week. On Sundays we ride bicycles with the local cycling club,” says Paul, who, as an amateur photographer, finds plenty of inspiration on his explorations around town.

Like any modern center, Chiang Mai is not without its challenges. The area’s popularity means overcrowding can be an issue, especially in the Old City. And during the hot season, when rice fields are burned for the coming planting season, the area suffers from reduced air quality.

Many expats live near the city center, where you can find a one-bedroom apartment for as little as $250 for a year’s lease. A furnished, two-bedroom, one-bathroom condo close to the night bazaar and with views of the Ping River goes for $485 a month. Move farther out and for $500 monthly, you can rent a furnished two-bedroom home with 1,600 square feet and mountain views.

Phuket—A Beach Lifestyle with All the Amenities

Nothing quite prepares you for the beauty of Phuket, especially when approaching the region by air…the sparkling, turquoise waters and jungle-topped mountains, the rocky outcrops and white-sand beaches. The country’s largest island is paradise for many expats.

Dubbed the “Pearl of the Andaman,” the island’s surrounding waters are warm and clear and there’s an ever-present breeze. During the dry season daytime temperatures average in the 70s F.

Phuket offers an easygoing lifestyle, or a club-hopping, center-of-the-action one, depending on your preference. For instance, you can go for a swim and a relaxing lunch on quiet Naithon Beach or you can join the buzz in the bar-lined Patong area, where music throbs and cabaret shows continue into the night. And with Thailand’s second-busiest international airport, you can easily catch a flight to a range of destinations, without transiting through Bangkok.

But the biggest draw for many expats is the comfortable, convenient lifestyle. In Phuket you can enjoy some of the best seafood in the south of the country and dine at a range of gourmet restaurants, from sushi to Italian to Indian. You’ll find grocery stores stocking imported foods, fashion and furniture boutiques, and golf courses galore. Expat clubs welcome newcomers and offer everything from cycling to sailing, and access to top-notch medical care is a reality here, at a fraction of the cost of back home.

It is this quality of life that drew Paul and Mary Farrell to the region. Originally from Canada, the couple vacationed frequently in Thailand over the years, and retired in 2010 to live full-time in Phuket. “After living in the cold of Canada for most of my life, it is nice to be living in a warm climate…I enjoy walking on the beach and sunset dinners,” says Paul. The couple dines out often, which Paul says is “very reasonably priced and delicious.”

Today, little trace is left of the impact of the 2004 tsunami, which devastated Phuket and other locations on Thailand’s western coast. Resorts are now back to full capacity, many of which took the opportunity to renovate and upgrade their facilities following the destruction. Since the tragedy, a tsunami warning system has been established in the area to increase safety.

Phuket’s expats live in a variety of towns and villages. The Patong area does earns its reputation as a seedy locale for tourists and “sex-pats,” but that’s just one part of the island. In fact, you’ll find in Phuket a very nice range of “family-friendly” locales like Chalong and the Nai Harn/Rawai area.

But whatever your budget, there’s something for everyone. A two-bedroom, two-bathroom villa with a pool, just a five minute walk to Kamala Beach, rents for $647 a month. Sacrifice beach views and you can rent a three bedroom, two-bathroom home with 1,500 square feet for as little as $485 a month to the island’s north, near Nai Yang Beach.

Hua Hin—Relaxed Seaside Retreat

This once-quiet fishing village south of Bangkok first debuted as a beach getaway in the 1920s, when Thailand’s royal family built a summer palace on the shore. Soon, the Thai capital’s elite followed suit, establishing vacation homes on the area’s wide, sandy beaches. Today, an easy, two-and-a-half-hour drive from Bangkok, Hua Hin is known among expat circles as a lively seaside town with easy living, a burgeoning restaurant scene, and a taste of the good life.

In addition to long stretches of clean, beautiful beaches, there’s a great night market right in town, where you can buy CDs, inexpensive bags, and Thai handicrafts. Get your shopping fix, then stop at one of the area’s seafood stalls for the day’s freshest catch. Or head a few blocks east where you can dine wharf side by candlelight.

For more than a decade, Hua Hin has hosted an annual jazz festival right on the beach, featuring some of the finest local and international musicians. And in recent years, the area has seen the establishment of a local winery open to visitors for tours and tastings. (That’s right…the Thai’s are now making wine and it’s not bad!)

Expats appreciate Hua Hin’s small-town feel. And while the area’s proximity to Bangkok initially draws people here, the sea breezes and reasonable cost of living are what convince them to stay.

As in many parts of Thailand, there’s local access to quality, affordable medical care. Most expats seek care at the area’s private hospitals, including the recently opened Bangkok Hospital Hua Hin, a satellite center of the well-known hospital located in the capital.

John Carr lives and works in Bangkok, but spends as many weekends as possible at the condo he purchased 10 years ago, half way between Hua Hin and Cha’am, located 15 miles to the north. “It’s a great chance for me to relax,” says John. “The beaches are excellent and fairly quiet.”

John admits the area has seen growth and many changes over the years. Still, he says, “Hua Hin is an easygoing town with lots of things to do.” In terms of real estate, a 968-square-foot unit with two bedrooms and a view of the ocean, located in the popular Khao Takieb area, is listed at $219,900. Move farther inland and you can find better deals. If you’re looking to rent, the options are plentiful. A three-bedroom, three-bathroom home with 1,600 square feet within walking distance to the beach goes for $775 a month.

Chiang Rai and Rayong—Two Off-the-Beaten-Track Havens

Sticking to established expat areas is not the only option in Thailand. A growing number of expats enjoy discovering the country’s little-known gems, such as Chiang Rai and Rayong.

Those looking for a peaceful, rural lifestyle head to Chiang Rai, located just 110 miles from Chiang Mai, in the country’s northernmost province. Chiang Rai offers all the basic amenities for a comfortable lifestyle, including restaurants, bars, a private hospital, and even a recently opened shopping mall.

But get out and explore the surrounding countryside, and Chiang Rai’s true attraction becomes clear. Mountains, rice fields, forests, and rivers await you. You’ll also discover tea and coffee plantations, orchards, waterfalls, and charming villages, home to some of the country’s hill tribes.

It’s this unique landscape that lured one local expat I spoke to, a 59-year-old American. “For me, the draw of Chiang Rai is all about the easy access to nature. I choose to live surrounded by it, but even those who live in town don’t have to drive far to get up in the mountains or to the river’s edge,” he says. This retiree’s favorite way to experience the countryside? On his mountain bike, where he can explore to his heart’s content.

Chiang Rai’s location also makes the perfect jumping-off point for exploring some of the more remote corners of northern Thailand, such as the Golden Triangle, the historic center of the once-famed opium trade between Thailand, Laos and Burma.

Along the country’s Eastern Gulf Coast of Thailand, Rayong province is home to sleepy fishing villages and some of the most peaceful and beautiful beach living around. Rayong City proper lacks character, but travel east 20 miles or so, and you might just agree you’ve found paradise.

Here it’s not uncommon to have a long stretch of unspoiled, white-sand beach to yourself. And while the area is quiet, there are stores and markets for basic needs and more than a handful of restaurants. Try Villa Bali near Laem Mae Phim Beach for tasty wood-fired pizzas and classic Thai dishes.

Of course, Rayong province has not gone without notice. A quick two-and-a-half-hour drive from Bangkok, the area is a popular weekend retreat for the capital’s residents. New condo developments and hotels, including a Marriott, are springing up along the coast, and there’s a growing expat community who appreciate the low-key beach lifestyle and the refreshingly low cost of living.

A three-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot home in Chiang Rai’s city center rents for $387. A furnished, two-bedroom, two-bathroom condo with sea views near Laem Mae Phim Beach is listed at $158,500.

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