Underneath a blue sky, fertile green rice paddies contour the land creating patchwork patterns. Green hills and valleys continue along this picturesque town. Hiking through the lush jungle, cool waterfalls spill playfully onto large rock platforms into a refreshing, natural pool. Children slide on the rocks laughing and splashing, taking a rest from the warmth of the Thai sun. This is Pai, a town 150 kilometres northwest of Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand.
With a population of less than 3,000 souls, Pai is the perfect place to escape from the city but you won’t go without your creature comforts here. It has all the amenities, including an established expat community, good Western restaurants and an excellent grocery store that carries a large selection of imported food.
Sitting at 510 metres, postcard-perfect Pai is more temperate than the lowlands—year-round temperatures average 25 C—and beautiful mountain vistas, lush fields of rice and peace and quiet abound.
Even in his wildest dreams, Phil Watson, 61, never imagined that he would find himself living and retiring here. But, in retrospect, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Back in 2011, Phil found himself going through a divorce and working between 14 and 18 hours a day in his solar panel installation business. He was burnt out and it was breaking him down. “I threw in my job and gave the business to my partner, I bought a camper trailer and a four-wheel drive and travelled round Australia for two-and-a-half years to get my head straight,” says Phil. Feeling better, Phil still felt something was missing.
“A mate raved about Thailand. I said to myself, it can’t be that good, but I ran out of things to do. So we lobbed into Chiang Mai in 2013. I fell in love with the place after a few weeks.
“I loved the people and the low costs. Back home I couldn’t afford to retire but here I could. That was the biggest driver for me,” says Phil.
Thailand offers a one-year education visa, which is a great way to give living in the country a ‘trial run’ before moving onto a retirement visa. This requires attending a Thai language school for approximately 10 hours per week, to study the Thai language. Yet, Phil still had some reservations. “I wasn’t sure if I could live here, not knowing anyone.”
Most expats agree that making friends in Chiang Mai is relatively easy, as this is a city with a high density of expats. “I got to know people through our classes. There was another Australian guy doing the course and we got to know a few other people as well,” says Phil.
Although Phil was making friends and had an active social life, he still enjoyed taking time away from the city so he bought a second-hand scooter for $1,300.
“I love taking adventures on my motorbike, exploring. I just get on my bike and ride north, south, east or west. I’ve found a couple of really nice spots within the national parks,” says Phil. “I sit down with a book and just enjoy the natural surroundings.
A chance meeting at The Gekko Garden Restaurant (where you’ll find the cheapest beer in Chiang Mai) changed Phil’s life. He befriended Stuart, a fellow expat, who happened to live in Pai. They got on so well that Phil ended up inviting Phil to share the rent in his large, three-storey townhouse in Pai. Rent is only $200 per month and Phil lives on a fairly strict budget of $80 per week.
“We look after each other like any family does,” says Phil. “Stuart’s wife, Tip, is from a hill tribe village, Lahu, and she likes cooking. I eat much healthier now; last night I had a stir-fried pork and basil dish with rice, fried vegetables with chilli, spiced curried eggs with shrimp sauce and a Thai style omelette. Tip sits on the floor of the kitchen with a mortar and pestle and crushes the spices herself.”
Living in Pai and being embedded into a Thai community has been an experience for Phil and one that he is grateful for. “Stuart and I have been invited to things that other Westerners would never have the chance to experience,” he says. “Like the Lahu New Year celebration. In traditional hill tribe costume, the Lahu perform a striking dance. It was just fascinating.”
In idyllic surroundings Phil found friendship, was embraced by a Thai hill tribe and now lives a healthy and happy life. “I now know I never want to live with the type of stress that was on me back in Australia ever again. I’m living a stress-free life here and loving it,” says Phil.
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