By Lynn Strough
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to move to another country? To be an expat in a foreign land? For six months I had a sampling of what that’s like in Thailand. It’s easier than you might think.
At first it can seem really foreign — different language, even different alphabets, different foods, different religions and different customs. For someone like me, who finds all of these differences fascinating, it’s like living in a dream. People in Thailand are very friendly, polite, welcoming and kind. And in bigger cities or resort towns, many speak some English. As an American, I feel lucky that English has become the current universal language. There are many expats from all over in Chiang Mai, the city where I took up residence and whether German or Korean or Brazilian, all generally communicate in English.
First thing to do when arriving is to secure a place to live. There are options for every budget, from shared hostel to small private room to luxury condo or large house. Being in the budget range of travel, I found a place at Mai Mansion, a bright pink building of single, private rooms for the affordable price of 5600 baht — about $156 American dollars a month — plus utilities. Yes, that’s right, you can rent your own furnished place for under $200.
If you find your place a little too spare, there are fun, inexpensive places to go for a few items to spruce it up, like the night markets. For under $10 you can buy colored lights, a ceramic vase and fabric, among other things to add some splashes of color.
What’s eating like in another country? Delicious! In Thailand, of course, there’s a variety of tasty Thai dishes, including pad Thai and curries. Thais like their food very hot, but they are happy to tone it down for us farangs (foreigners). At small local restaurants you can enjoy dinner for as little as 30 baht, or about $1.
If you get homesick for other cuisines, in bigger cities like Chiang Mai you have plenty of options — Mexican, Italian, Indian, American — for a slightly bigger price tag. Even at $6 for dinner, it’s a lot more affordable than eating out in the U.S. or Europe.
With a severe mushroom allergy I was concerned, as mushrooms are common in Asia but as soon as I arrived, I asked someone who spoke both languages to please write me a note that told of my allergy, which I simply showed to the servers. No allergy emergencies in six months, I’m happy to report.
What about transportation? There are many options there as well. You can hop on a very affordable songtheaw, the little red buses that chug down the roads all over. Or grab a tuk tuk, a sort of cart attached to a motorcycle. Many people rent scooters for around $70 a month, which gives you a lot more freedom or you can rent a bike. And of course, there’s always walking.
What does one do in Thailand once you’re settled in? So many options: take a cooking class or go visit an elephant rescue center (please don’t ride the elephants as it can hurt them, go instead where you can feed and help bathe them). There are beautiful temples everywhere which you can visit, and you can even attend a meditation retreat to explore your spiritual side.
If you’re feeling stressed out, for a mere $6 you can experience an hour Thai massage, but I recommend that you splurge on a two-hour coconut oil massage for less than $20. My new friend Pitt does an excellent job, and will leave you feeling like you’re floating.
It’s fun to just wander around and see what you might discover, including all the unique flora. You might even get lucky and be there during the flower festival. And speaking of festivals, there are many. In April is Songkran, the Thai New Year, with its crazy water festivities, and in November the stunningly beautiful Loy Kratong lantern festival, where thousands of little boats made of banana leaves are set off on the river, while thousands of paper lanterns are sent floating up in the night sky.
Many “digital nomads” go to Chiang Mai for an inexpensive place to live and work, and there are lots of internet cafes and co-working spaces with super wifi connections. And for those who are into shopping of the more modern variety, there are shopping malls as well.
In fact, you can get just about anything you want in cities like Chiang Mai, my home base, and certainly everything you need. If you need medical attention, they have topnotch doctors and dentists for a fraction of the cost of care in the U.S. You may just find your prescription for a tenth of the cost of at home. My migraine pills in the States are $40 each by prescription while in Thailand the same brand is $4 over the counter. And I had a great teeth cleaning by the dentist herself for $27.
But back to more fun — near Chiang Mai you can head out to a nearby park for a day of lounging in little waterside huts, eating and swimming, or if you’re more daring, head to the Grand Canyon of Chiang Mai for some cliff jumping. There are other trips as well, such as up to visit the hill tribes or on the winding road up to sleepy little hippy town Pai, where you can take a soak in the waterfalls.
So much to do, although my main purpose was to work on a book, so I had to hide myself away and try not to get too distracted. It’s easy to make friends in a place like Chiang Mai — whether at the coffee shops or the gym (for $27 a month you can have use of a gym and a pool), the festivals, just walking down the street or at the many meet-up groups.
Whether you’re a student taking a break,or a retiree, have been laid off from your job or just need a sabbatical, I highly recommend visiting a foreign country for a period of time, a month or longer. Can’t afford it, you think? Think again. You can housesit or house swap, or couch surf or do like I did and sell everything, though you don’t have to do anything quite so drastic. You can rent out your home, and I bet for the monthly rental income, you’d be able to afford a plane ticket, room and food in Thailand. You can live there pretty easily for $1000 a month (or less if you travel with someone and share accommodations).
Work? See if you can take a sabbatical, so your job is waiting for you. Or see if your job can be done remotely — wifi is not hard to find, and neither is your own slice of paradise.
Don’t have any savings? Start by keeping track of all your daily expenditures, and I bet you can find a myriad of ways to cut back and stash cash away. Coffee? Lunch out? Cigarettes? Drinks after work? That new pair of shoes when you already have 12 pair in your closet? Speaking of closets, what about cleaning them out, along with your garage, and selling some stuff on eBay? It’s all about priorities. Before you know it you’ll have enough to take off for a month (or maybe a year). In fact, for the same amount that you spend on that one-week cruise or staying at a fancy hotel with a golf course, you can stay for a month in southeast Asia. You may decide not to come home.
Concerned about safety? I’ve felt safer in 15 other countries than I do in most places in the U.S., especially as a woman traveling solo. So take off and explore the world! I think you’ll be happy you did.
Lynn is a 50+ wanderer whose incarnations in this life have included graphic designer, children’s book author and illustrator, public speaker, teacher, fine art painter, wine educator in the Napa Valley, and world traveler. Through current circumstances, she has found herself single, without a job or a home, and poised for a great adventure.
“You could consider me homeless and unemployed, but I prefer nomad and self-employed, as I pack up my skills and head off with my small backpack and even smaller savings to circumnavigate the globe (or at least go until the money runs out). Get ready to tag along for the ride…starting now!”
Reprinted with permission