In 2011 we lived in Chiang Mai Thailand for a year with our toddler daughter. It was amazing and one of the best things we ever did. We often get asked a lot about this decision and our time there. Here are the most commonly asked questions we get about living in Thailand and our answers.
Why did you move to Thailand? Living overseas is on a lot of peoples bucket lists, ours included and when the opportunity came up for my husband to work overseas we spoke about it in an airy-fairy wouldn’t-it-be-nice-for-some sort of way. But why not? It was a real opportunity at a time in our lives when we weren’t too tied down. We could make this happen. As soon as we realised that we needed to seriously consider this opportunity it was all we could think about and we swung from yes to no on a daily basis. Essentially we ended up asking ourselves, would we regret it if we didn’t go? The answer was yes. Decision made.
How did we do it? We sorted through all our worldly possessions and got rid of a lot of stuff. If it wasn’t stolen (we were robbed on Christmas Day!), we sold it, binned it, or gave it to charity. The rest was boxed up and put into storage with our furniture. We took only 5 boxes of belongings with us which included clothes, linen, toys and the ubiquitous jar of Vegemite. This was all we needed for the next 12 months. We sold our car, sent our dog to live with my parents, put everything in storage and updated our contact details with all of our friends. It was easy really. All we had on the other end was a job for my husband and a hotel room they had booked for us to stay in for 2 weeks while we got our feet on the ground.
What did you do when you first got there? We had been pretty busy just before we arrived in our new town. There were Christmas celebrations, we had been robbed and were dealing with the insurance paperwork, we had packed everything up and we had just finished traveling for six weeks in Europe. Needless to say when we landed in Chiang Mai Thailand we were exhausted. I think the exhilaration of what lay ahead for us was the only thing that was keeping us going. In our first couple of weeks we got our bearings of the city and found somewhere to live. We were desperate to stop living out of a suitcase, which we had been doing for about 3 months by this stage. We signed a lease on the first apartment we found that fit all of our criteria and unpacked our meager possessions.
We both got a local mobile sim-card and connected the internet. We got health insurance, though it isn’t really necessary as medical treatment is very affordable for most things. We simply got it for worst case scenario. Our Visas were all sorted – the type and length is dependent on your situation but it is necessary and often a pain in the butt.
So we were legal, sheltered, protected and connected. That was all we needed.
Where did we live? We were there to experience the culture and see things, so we didn’t live in the gated communities out of town. Instead, to the shock of the other expats, we found an apartment right in the city near the local markets and sights. We had 2 bedrooms, a bathroom and a living room. On the side of the living room we had a small kitchen area which consisted of a sink with a cold tap and a fridge. There was a tv, which was rarely turned on, and air conditioning for the super hot days. It was simple, but this was all we needed. We had a couple of cups, bowls and plates – but like most locals it was cheaper and easier to eat out. We had two sets of sheets and towels – one being used and one in the wash. Beside the simplicity there were perks – we had a pool, secure parking, security guards, a gym, a restaurant, a laundry and a maid. This was all great but for us, it was all about the location. We wanted to be in the thick of it and we needed to be close so that it was easy to get around. We paid about $500 a month for this. There are much cheaper and much more expensive choices – this was somewhere in the middle.
How did we get around? Like everyone in Thailand, we owned a motorbike, which my husband used to get to and from work. A lot of people rent their bikes but because we were there for a year we bought ours second hand at a bike market for about $430. It was in great condition but because of the plethora of bikes in the city any necessary repairs were instant and cheap. The roads are dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing, so only get a bike if you are confident in your skills and understand the road ‘rules’. If you spend some time there you learn that there is some sense to the chaos on the roads. Not everyone wears helmets, though it is illegal so there is a trend towards everyone doing it now. We aren’t idiots, we bought helmets (they start at $6 each) at one of the many roadside shops with colours and styles to suit even the pickiest person. We had a child’s seat attached to the motorbike and sometimes all 3 of us would ride around ‘Thai style’ which was a fun and convenient way to get around. It only started to get a bit overcrowded on the bike when my pregnant tummy took up an extra seat. We even mastered how to hang our shopping bags off the handlebars and I would sit on the back of the bike hanging on to the groceries as we careened around the bends back home. We would pull up to roadside stalls and order from the back of the bike just like the locals. We loved that you could order your drink and they would have a nifty little plastic bag type holder that was made for putting over your handlebars. At Christmas time my husband even somehow bought a Christmas tree and rode through the streets with this big potted tree on his lap!
During the week, while my husband was at work, my daughter and I would either walk, catch a songtaew (60 cents) or less often a tuk tuk (around $2) to get around the city. It is cheap to get around especially if you can prove you are a local by speaking a little Thai and knowing where you are going. For out of town trips we would borrow a car and to travel to other countries, flights were really cheap.
What did we do every day? We explored the city, we went to festivals (which are on all the time in Thailand!), and we traveled. On a typical day though we would catch a Songtaew into the city to visit the park and feed the fish and birds, maybe visit a temple or do some shopping. At some point we would stop for a snack and a fruit shake. Before heading home we’d stop at the local markets and wander around the stores. We would buy some fresh fruit and a bunch of flowers and something for lunch before strolling back across the river. With a stop off to say hello to the resident dog and maybe a play on the swing, we would cool off inside and nibble on our lunch and devour a plate full of fresh tropical fruit. In the afternoon we would play, maybe have a swim and relax a little. At night we would head out to the local night markets and leisurely look at the stalls, snack on delicious street food and eventually sit down for some dinner. We would go to sleep listening to the karaoke from down the road and wake to the gentle bell ringing from the nearby temple ready to explore another part of the city. After a year we were still finding new and exciting places to visit and parts of the city that we had not yet explored.
Even the mundane tasks like grocery shopping was always an adventure. We saw and tried new things every time we went out. On weekends we would usually get out of the city and see the surrounding area or attend festival events. Sometimes we would travel to the neighbouring countries – Burma, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia are all convenient, as is of course, all of Thailand.
How much did things cost? The cost of living in Thailand is very low compared to Australia and most other western countries. Give or take a little for specific things, in general it is about a third of the cost of living here. A lot of it comes down to choices. The same as at home, you can choose to live simply or opulently, you can choose brands, you can choose to shop around, you can sometimes even choose to get ripped off or not. By the end of our stay we were easily in the mind set of the locals and while something may have been cheap by Australian standards, if we were being asked to pay more than the locals did for something we felt that we were being cheated and that it was too expensive. It didn’t happen often because we were locals and they respected that.
We did visit a grocery store once a week to buy staples like nappies and milk but there really wasn’t much we had to buy. We had massive bottles of water delivered to our apartment. We paid our bills for phone($3/month), internet ($15/month), electricity($20/month) and water ($6/month). Everything is cheap by western standards as long as it is something that the locals all use. For instance cheese, a toaster and Vegemite was all available but there wasn’t a demand for it so it was expensive. A rice cooker, water and fruit were all cheap. Here is a list of prices of standard things while we were there:
- Fresh Iced Coffee $0.80
- Fresh Fruit Shake $1.00
- Bunch of Flowers $1.00
- 1Kg Rambutans $0.60
- 10 Mangoes $1.00
- 2L Milk $2.30
- Loaf of Bread $0.60
- 6 Toilet Rolls (western quality) $1.95
- BBQ Chicken $3.00
- 30L Water, Delivered $0.75
And no, it isn’t all street markets, there are big air conditioned shopping centres with department stores, there are Starbucks and 7-11s and everything in between.
What did we eat? Most Thai’s don’t have a kitchen because eating out is so cheap and easy. We set ourselves up with a basic kitchen but tended to follow suit and eat out or get take away. Occasionally we had western food but mostly we ate local cuisine. Our daughter ate what we ate with the exception of some very spicy dishes but she always gave them a go first. Food is a huge part of life in Thailand so I am going to dedicate a post just to this next week.
What was the weather like? Chiang Mai is in Northern Thailand nestled in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. No, Thailand is not just a beach holiday destination. No, we didn’t live near the beach. No, we weren’t isolated, Chiang Mai is Thailand’s 5th largest city with about 1 million people. It is a lush green cosmopolitan city with a temperate climate.
When it is hot, which is from March to June, it is about 32C most days but can get up to 40C and is still above 25C at night. Air conditioning, fans and those cool little gadgets that spray a fine mist of water on you at restaurants are your friends. As are fruit shakes and water for staying hydrated.
When it rains, from July to October, you can get torrential downpours, but they are mostly short lived. The locals are used to this and are prepared for it. When you see them erecting plastic covers over their stalls you know it is about to rain and can calmly take cover. Big plastic poncho raincoats are sold everywhere, though they are extremely hot with temperatures staying mostly in the very high 20’s and humidity sits around 90% making them a steam tent. If you ride a bike in the wet season you can try and do as the locals do and lift your feet up on to the front dash as you drive through puddles and flooded areas. Or try riding while holding an umbrella.
From November to February it is the “cool” season with days about 25C and nights cooling off to about 15C. It is definitely cool enough to need a jacket and scarf when riding the bike early or late in the day.
Around March every year it is very hazy while the farmers burn off the rice fields. This got especially bad for a little while and we couldn’t leave the house. On the bad days your eyes sting, you can’t see more than a few metres in front of you and it is hard to breath. I hope that one day the farmers are taught how to do this properly.
How did your toddler handle living in Thailand? My daughter turned 2 a few months after we arrived in Thailand and she loved every minute of it. She loved the food and tried everything. We saw new and exciting things every day. She had room to run and play. She learned Thai very easily and quickly. She learned all about Thai culture and Buddhism. She never once got sick.
About the only thing she didn’t like was strangers touching her all of the time and this only became an issue for her in the last month or two. When we returned home to Australia it took another month or so for her to realise that people here don’t do that and that she would be ok.
How was the social life? Thank goodness for the wonders of the Internet and cheap reliable connections – We kept in touch with family and friends at home through Skype, email and Facebook. As for your social life on the ground – it really depends on who you are. Locally there was a small community of expats but we found that mostly they were retirees, just passing through for a couple of months, or ingrained in a local relationship. We were one of the very rare expat couples, that is, most couples had a Thai partner.
The Thai people were very friendly though and were keen to chat with us. Through their broken English and my minimal Thai, lots of smiling and gestures we would interact with them on a daily basis. Although one of the things my daughter learnt to say in Thai was “no, please don’t”. She was a cute little blonde haired, fair skinned girl that everyone wanted to touch. My daughter played with the local kids at the playground but there was a big language barrier and it didn’t go far beyond chasing each other around. Although many expats sent their kids to International schools from age 3 I felt that she was too young for school everyday and I wasn’t prepared to enroll her in a Thai speaking day care.
So socially we were a bit isolated but that wasn’t what we were there for.
Why did we come back to Australia? We missed our family and friends and my daughter needed to socialise with more kids. After a year abroad we were ready to come home. The final deciding factor was that I was pregnant, wanted to be near family for this and after hearing about others experience and finding out first hand, I decided I didn’t like the medical care offered.
Would we go back? I am looking forward to going back to Chiang Mai Thailand and probably will go back several times, but I don’t think we would go back to live again. Not at this stage in our lives anyway. However it was such an amazing experience that we would definitely consider living abroad again, but in a more developed country.
If you have more questions about anything to do with living in Thailand, moving abroad or visiting Chiang Mai please do not hesitate to ask.Love it. Follow me. . .