Live Like a King in the Hills of Thailand

Years ago, I was certain I had found what every man or woman should seek: my own Shangri-La.

On a whim, two of us—young and dashing U.S. Army lieutenants—headed for the hills of northern Thailand, to Chiang Mai.

We were snatching a much longed-for leave from the wars and turmoil then storming across Asia.

Slumbering in a green valley, Chiang Mai had the rare feel of innocent, far-away mountain places, like that Himalayan hideaway in James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon.

We strolled down the sleepy, narrow alleys, with their delightful teakwood houses where chickens clucked in backyards, to suddenly stumble upon a splendid Buddhist temple. Hardly a motor was heard; just a lulling swish as a trishaw driver would pedal us back to our hotel on almost-rural Huay Kaew Road, below the darkening silhouette of Chiang Mai’s dominating feature, the 5,500-foot Suthep Mountain.

We encountered nothing but natural hospitality. And, of course, being young, we were also very taken with the legendary beauty of northern Thai women.

Fast-forward four-plus decades to 2013… The overgrown village is now a sizeable urban center. You can’t call it Shangri-La anymore. But by many polls, and my own reckoning, Chiang Mai remains one of the most livable places in Asia.

So my wife and I bought 3.5 acres of land, including our own rice field, in a lovely valley outside the city. Seven years ago we built our retirement home, “The House at the End of the Rainbow,” as the wooden sign by our gate says.

These days, an increasing number of retirees, Americans and others, are among the estimated 40,000 foreigners who call Chiang Mai home. The pluses they cite are generally uniform—a relaxed lifestyle among a friendly local population, a vibrant expatriate community, low crime rate, cool “winters,” varied activities and services, excellent medical care, and a low cost of living. And that special magic I sensed years ago, which still lingers.

“I live like a king for $2,000 a month,” trumpets an expat friend.

With an ongoing boom in housing construction for both foreigners and Thais moving up from Bangkok, the city offers a wide price range in rentals and purchases. A few planned retirement communities have also opened their gates. A pleasant suburban house can be rented for $400 a month and lower-end condominiums go for as little as $30,000.

The price tag for our own main, architect-designed house, a Thai-style guesthouse in the garden, and quarters for the family who helps us manage things, plus the land, came to $350,000. I know I couldn’t have afforded anything like it anywhere in the U.S. on my salary and pension.

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