40 Years On, a Bangkok Expat Reveals the City’s Secrets

Bangkok may not be on your list of retirement havens, but it should be. One expat explains why.|©iStock/Diversity Studio

When you hear Bangkok, you might think of traffic jams, pollution, and seedy malls. But like anywhere else, if you know it intimately, it becomes a totally different place. To know Bangkok is to love it.

I first came to Bangkok at the age of 18, on a tour of Southeast Asia. That was forty years ago, and I’ve lived and worked here off and on ever since. Nowadays, a concrete-and-steel-tooth skyline dominates the city, but Bangkok’s soul remains the same. Then, as now, I still regard Bangkok as the greatest city on earth to live, work, and play.

Let me share its secrets with you.

Living Well on $2,500 a Month

In The Quiet American, Graham Greene wrote of Southeast Asia, "Everything is so intense, the colors, the taste, even the rain, not like the filthy rain in London. They say whatever you are looking for, you will find it here."

His words ring true for me.

My wife and I live in Bangkok’s Old Town amidst golden domes and glittering temples. There’s a major tourist road nearby, but we’re just far enough from it to be immersed in Thai culture and the old-style Thai way of life. We shop at generational stores where children help their parents and families live above the storefront, and we eat at delicious, authentic family-run eateries.

In the Old Town, we’re surrounded by the Thai people. Friendliness is all-encompassing and we’ve learned to become more culturally aware. You should know of the importance of the slight nod of the head, to always smile, to never raise your voice, and be aware the head is the most revered part of the body, and the feet are the opposite. Some Westerners fail to adhere to some simple rules and the land of smiles quickly turns to the land of smirks.

We rent a one-bedroom apartment only two minutes from the fabled Chao Phraya River, the main artery of the city. One of our favorite pastimes is sitting at a local riverfront restaurant called Steve Café and Cuisine. (It’s right on the river behind the monastery Wat Devaraj Kunchon, the grounds of which you have to walk through to get there.)

This 80-year-old house has been beautifully refurbished, the food is excellent, and the laid-back ambiance makes for a restful afternoon. We like to sip a cold beer after a day exploring under the Bangkok sun, and watch the tugboats and ancient teak rice barges chug past.

We live on a monthly budget of just over $2,500. That includes $500 for rent, $200 for utilities, $300 for food, $500 for entertainment, and $200 on health insurance.

Our experience with the Thai medical system has been extraordinary. Modern hospitals, such as Vejthani Hospital, are as good as anything in the West and feel more like plush hotels than hospitals (as is indicated by the thriving medical tourism industry).

Dental care is wonderful. You can simply walk into a dentist and have a check-up and a cleaning for around $30. I just had a bridge fitted for $2,000.

We also spend an average of $750 on travel. Our travel options are amazing, whether it be to relax on the squeaky-clean, white-sand beaches of the southern islands, celebrate the Thai New Year, called Songkran, in Chiang Mai, or ride an old-fashioned steam train to the ancient capital of Ayutthaya. Bangkok is also the gateway to Asia, and we have Vietnam, Laos, Malaysia, Indonesia, and more all on our doorstep.

A Thriving Cultural Scene

Bangkok is a very different city than the one I first encountered as a teenager. It’s now full of trendy coffee shops and delicious bakeries that wouldn’t be out of place in Paris.

New roads, the modern metro, and the SkyTrain have made getting around the city much easier than it used to be. I’ve given up my car; taxis are so cheap and efficient, it’s not worth the added cost of owning one.

New museums such as the Bangkokian Museum, the Forensic Museum, or the Siam Museum flourish. We’re still working our way through these, though my wife has been a member of the Bangkok Watercolor Society for some years. She’s made many friends through it.

Large, natural green spaces have increased, like the innovative Sky Park, a green walkway that crosses the river, or the Green Mile that enables you to walk through the city center to the ever-brilliant Lumpini Park. For our daily exercise, we go to Rommaninat Park, which has a great outdoor gym and costs only 60 cents a visit. We have made many Thai friends here, too.

We also cross the nearby Rama VIII Bridge and have a jog around the manicured Rama VIII Park on the Thon Buri side of the river. Here there are few or no tourists, and prices are even cheaper.

Some days, we take the klong (canal) from Panfa Leelard Pier, near the famous Golden Mount Temple, into the heart of the city. Klong travel is ubiquitous; it’s no wonder Bangkok was once called the Venice of the East. The water taxi costs only 50 cents and takes only 20 minutes. It’s an exciting water ride to the bars, clubs, movie theaters, and international restaurants.

Several of the five-star hotels here offer a day pass that includes access to the swimming pool and gym—a pleasant splurge that lasts all day for only $25. It’s a tale of two cities when it comes to pricing; tourist areas cost double what you pay in Old Town.

Some days, we meditate at Wat Suthat supervised by the monks. Or we search for antique bargains at eclectic markets, like On Ang Canal Night Market, a weekend market along a restored canal, or the legendary Chatuchak Market, the biggest market in the southern hemisphere.

Other days, we visit art galleries around the artsy River City Mall, where a thriving art community resides amid the backstreets.

Food, Glorious Food

The Thais are either cooking food, talking about food, or eating food, so it’s no wonder it has international acclaim. Dining at home in the evening is not an option. The food around the Old Town is stupendous, especially the street food. We eat from a street stall most nights. It’s some of the freshest, tastiest food anywhere, all for around $1.60 a dish. And, despite common belief, hygiene is of the highest standard. In 40 years, I’ve never become sick.

The restaurants and small eateries are just as good as the street stalls. Take a wander down Klong Bang Lamphu for never-ending options (the nameless duck noodles restaurant, on the opposite bank from the Duklong Café, is a must). Further down at Samsen Alley is the fantastic Cozy Corner eatery, another delicious family-run restaurant that does the best deep-fried fish with an accompanying chili dip that has a bit of a kick.

And a stroll through the clamour of nearby Chinatown is a gastronomic delight. Our favorite here are the Chinese noodles at Mung Korn Khao, an incredible place to sit and watch the nonstop activity.

Americans Abound Here

Retiring in Thailand isn’t always the easiest sell to North Americans, with Central America and Europe much closer… but most of my friends are North Americans.

Some of the best Super Bowls and Memorial Days I’ve ever had have taken place in Bangkok. There are some awesome sports bars with authentic American burgers and hot dogs. The Sportsman Bar on the well-known Sukhumvit 13 will never let you down with their burgers and American-style menu.

Many of my North American friends have retired to Thailand to indulge their love of golf. Around Bangkok, there are over 70 world-class golf courses designed by the world’s leading golf architects. All are in immaculate condition, and you can play for less than the cost of a public green fee back in North America.

In many ways, Thailand is North America’s playground, a love affair amplified by the Vietnam War legacy. It possesses the biggest AmCham in Asia and also one of the biggest American embassy presences in the world.

If you come to Thailand, my best advice is to forget all you’ve learned in the West. Come open-minded, and you can turn your trip into an awakening. Don’t try and change Thailand; let it change you.

To know Bangkok is to fall in love with it.

In Thailand, people don’t shunt the venerated elderly off to an old folks’ home to stare out the window all day. Here, the elderly stir rice, rock the cradle, and in turn feel wanted, useful, and needed. This sense of care resonates throughout Thailand, and Thais’ friendliness is contagious. We live a rich, rewarding, and fascinating life here in Bangkok.

As Graham Greene wrote, "You understand a lot [about a country] in the first few minutes, but the rest has got to be lived."

The Thai Retirement Visa

Thanks to the Thai Retirement Visa, Roland enjoys temple views daily.
Thanks to the Thai Retirement Visa, Roland enjoys temple views daily. |©FOKKEBOK/iSTOCK

The Thai Retirement Visa is straightforward and can be used for multiple entries. You need to be over 50 years old, deposit $23,000 in a Thai bank, and comply with immigration protocols, including informing Immigration of your current address every 90 days. You must apply for the visa from your country of nationality, and your passport must have one year remaining before expiry.