Avoiding Predictable in Thailand’s “Rose of the North”

Avoiding Predictable in Thailand’s “Rose of the North”

"My biggest fear in retirement is waking up and not having any idea what I am going to do that day,” says David Lucero.

But David’s fears have never been realized...because he went in search of an overseas adventure.

His travels began with an epiphany in his office. “Back in 2013 I was working in Houston, Texas, and at that time I was around 62. I was working in a private equity firm and was tired spending 10 to 11 hours a day looking at a computer screen. I’ve always enjoyed traveling so I started looking for things to do outside of the U.S.”

David discovered a slew of teaching jobs overseas. “I found a teaching job in Yantai, China (Yentai University) and in early 2014, I went for a year and stayed for four years.”

During that time, David used China as a base to explore Asia. “I traveled in Central and Southeast Asia, including Cambodia, Lao, and the Philippines. My brother had been to Chiang Mai 30 years ago and he suggested I go there.”

Chiang Mai is a northern city in Thailand known as the “Rose of the North.” With golden temples to explore, international restaurants, and festivals to celebrate on a regular basis, Chiang Mai is popular with tourists and expats. Although it has a warm to hot climate, Chiang Mai does have a cool season, and temperatures can dip into the 60s during the winter. It is a short hour’s flight from Bangkok and has an international airport that serves destinations all around Asia.You’ll find a group for everything in Chiang Mai.Nestled among the mountains, Chiang Mai offers a variety of lifestyles including city living in a high-rise condo, suburban living, and country living with views of rice fields and banana plantations.

“This city is great because it has a good expat population. The city’s size was right for me. Here you can get anywhere you want in 20 minutes on a motorbike. Whatever your interest is, go to Facebook and you will find a group in Chiang Mai. Hiking, walking, eating, golf, whatever,” says David.

“Back in China, I realized that I really enjoyed teaching so when I first got to Chiang Mai, I circled around a few schools I had driven by and I just walked in and asked if they needed teachers. Teaching began to fill a gap. I could teach as much or as little as I wanted to, so I chose to teach 15 hours a week. I was only paid about $9 an hour but it was something that I enjoyed.”

One day someone suggested to David that he attend a Rotary meeting. At the meeting, he was asked if he was any good at math. “They told me about a charity school helping Burmese migrant workers and they were looking for a math teacher to volunteer,” he recalls.

This meant that David could stay in Thailand on a volunteer visa. It is illegal to work or volunteer on a retirement visa in Thailand, so reputable places do offer volunteer visas and pay the costs.

David’s volunteer teaching timetable is around 10 hours per week and is flexible so he has plenty of time for further travel, which he loves to do.

“My favorite spot for travel is Koh Chang, Thailand’s third-largest island after Phuket. It’s an eight-hour mini-van trip from Bangkok. There are nice beaches and it is relatively unpopulated compared to other beach towns.”

When David isn’t teaching and traveling, he is busy with the many social events that are an intricate part of expat life in Chiang Mai.

“I joined a pool league and we play in bars and travel to a new venue each week. I got involved through friends. I never really played pool much in the U.S. but you get better at it. We play in teams. It’s just people getting together drinking a beer, playing pool.”

David says when he first arrived in Chiang Mai and was searching online for activities, he found a competitive bridge competition. “I used to play bridge when I was younger, but I hadn’t played for 30 years. They have a wonderful club here and they are mostly retirees but some are Thai and some are younger digital nomads. They host tournaments too, so you get to meet players from outside this city and make friends. Some of the players are competitive but most of us are just there to drink a beer, make friends and have fun.”

A large part of social life as an expat in Chiang Mai is the food scene. There are hundreds of restaurants in and around the city and as the food is so flavorful and cheap, there is never a reason to cook.

“My girlfriend cooks a lot of Thai food so my favorite restaurant isn’t a Thai. Ribs and Rump is my favorite restaurant.

“It’s inside the old city and the chef is Thai but he cooked in New Zealand for 10 years. They have a great rib-eye steak that comes with mash potato or fries and a salad. It’s about 300 baht or $9.” David rents a three-bedroom townhouse with three floors close to the Old City for the bargain price of $537 per month. This means that there is plenty of room for visitors from back home. His water bill is less than $10 per month and depending on his air conditioning usage, his electricity bill ranges from $20 to $75 per month.I rent a three-bedroom townhouse for $537 a month.David says that a good quality lifestyle here costs around $2,000 per month. His medical care is affordable too.

“I am very fortunate that I don’t have underlying medical conditions so that isn’t at the top of my list, but I do go and see a very competent, English-speaking doctor at Ram Hospital and they test my bloods and do a general check-up. The doctor costs about 400 baht ($12) and the blood work and tests come to about 2,000 baht ($60).

“I have enough money in the bank in case I had something like a heart attack, but my medical insurance is really just a ticket home. I do have accident insurance which is very cheap. It costs 6,000 baht ($180) a year and pays up to 300,000 baht ($9,000),” says David.

“What has surprised me about my move here is how much I enjoy Chiang Mai,” says David, “how different it is from the U.S. How different…and how much better it is.”


Chiang Mai’s markets are a feast for the senses and for your stomach. © © hadynyah/iStock
Chiang Mai’s markets are a feast for the senses and for your stomach. © © hadynyah/iStock

Stay With a Tribe—The north of Thailand is home to the country’s “hill tribes,” a term used to describe the folks living a traditional life in the mountains and border areas. There are six main ethnic groups, each with their own language. A home stay is a great way to get closer to these cultures. See: Thailandhilltribeholidays.com.

Shop for Crafts—The folks you see on hill tribe tours make some outstanding crafts, and you can pick up anything from bells to rugs, musical instruments and pottery.

Get a Massage (or Learn to Give One)—You’ll find massage parlors all over town and a lot of them are good. For about $7, you can get an hour-long foot reflexology session at Lila Thai Massage, which has branches around the Old City. The staff are former women prisoners. See: Chiangmaithaimassage.com. If you want to learn massage techniques, a good option is Old Medicine Hospital, which is the longest-running. See: Thaimassageschool.ac.th.

Chat to a Monk—It sounds a bit like a radio show, but MonkChat is an online, open-to-all discussion between anyone interested in joining in and Buddhist monks at the MCU Buddhist University. It takes place every Saturday and Sunday from 7 p.m. on Facebook. The orange-clad monks are friendly and engaging and it’s a great way to learn more about Buddhism and Thai culture. See: Monkchat.net. (You can also sign up for the meditation courses which are now being held in-person again.) If you can’t make this then several temples have monks on hand at various times happy to talk meditation, mindfulness and other such things. Just ask around.

Eat at the Sunday Market—Starve yourself until 4 p.m. on Sunday when the weekly market nearly a mile-long on Ratchadamnoen Road kicks off. This “walking market” is dedicated to the crafts and artisan wares of the region’s tribesfolk, but the food alone is worth it. Temple courtyards are turned over to stalls offering delicious fare at knockdown prices—average is a buck for a helping. Feast on dumplings, pancakes, skewer sweetmeats, soups, salads, sushi, sticky rice and much more.

Trek the Jungle—There are hundreds of outfits offering all sorts of trekking packages mixing elephants, bamboo rafts, tribal villages, wildlife, craft and more. Eagle House has a reputation for getting you off the beaten track at an affordable price. See: Eaglehouse.com.

Visit the Aquarium—It may be miles from the coast, but Chiang Mai is home to the largest marine aquarium in Asia and the longest aquarium tunnel in the world. On one side above you are river fish, on the other sea life. See: Chiangmaiaquarium.com.

Take a Boat Trip—Boats leave from the jetty at Wat Chai Mongkol and cruise up the Ping river into the countryside where they dock for a traditional meal before returning to Chiang Mai. The excursion takes about two hours. See: Maepingrivercruise.com.

Catch a Festival—Thai New Year, called Songkhran, is celebrated mid-April and Chiang Mai is one of the best places to experience the festivities. In November thousands of candles are floated down the Ping River for Loy Krathong and lanterns are sent silently into the sky.