A Jet-Setting Retirement in Low-Cost Chiang Mai

“The longer I stay here, the more I realise I’ve made a good choice,” says Leo Ellis of his new home in the colourful Thai city of Chiang Mai. Leo moved here in 2012—at the modest age of 87. Four years later, he’s as happy as ever to call it home.

There’s just one thing he’d change about making the move overseas. “I should have come 20 years ago,” says Leo.

“It’s a good location, has an excellent cost of living and the local people are very friendly. There are some very good restaurants and I can have pleasant meal, with a glass of wine, for around $18 to $22. Back home, I’d be paying at least $60 for a similar quality meal.”

But there’s more to Chiang Mai than food and fine wine. “The accessibility of flights from Chiang Mai was something that really attracted me,” he says. “You can go almost anywhere from here. You’re next door to Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam and Burma. It’s easy to access these places and there are very good connections to almost any part of the world.

“There are more small airlines with economical flights that are flying straight from here to adjacent Southeast Asian countries. So far I’ve been to Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Laos, Taipei and Seoul.”

With low-cost domestic flights also on offer, Leo can enjoy Thailand‘s beaches when he wants, despite Chiang Mai being landlocked.

“When I’m travelling, I usually live at about the same level I live at in Chiang Mai,” he says of his expenses. “I like beaches where I can stretch out and read for a few days. I usually stay at guesthouses or three- or four-star hotels. During the June-to-October low season, you get very good rates. I like a bungalow on the beach with a hammock, so if it’s $15 a night or $26 it’s okay; I’ll pay it.”

One of Leo’s favourite “bungalow and hammock on the beach” places is Pine Bungalow, in Kata, a half-hour drive from Krabi, on Thailand’s southern coast. Here he can relax right on the tropical beach for only $26 a night. (Krabi is just under two hours from Chiang Mai by plane. A roundtrip plane ticket is about $99.)

“It’s just a very quiet place where you hardly see anybody, a place for reading and drinking beer,” he says.

So what made Leo decide to move overseas to Thailand? “When I was looking at my finances a few years ago, I thought to myself, ‘I really don’t need to be working.'” (After officially retiring in the late 1990s, Leo worked part time as a freelance travel agent.) “‘I’ve got enough money to live somewhere else.’

“I’d been to Thailand several times and liked the country, and I thought, maybe one day I’ll move over here. And I’m glad I did.”

Leo spent six months in Thailand in 2011 to decide whether he wanted to move permanently. He now rents a 34-square-metre studio apartment in the historic centre of Chiang Mai’s old town, close to all the amenities he needs. Rent and bills come to around $300 a month—a quarter of what he used to pay back home.

“I like not being dependent on anybody other than myself. I don’t think in terms of how old I am. I’m content; I want to live as long as I can and enjoy life.”

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