Living and Working in Bangkok Surviving in Bangkok
Some people have a long, happy time in Bangkok while others don't last very long. It takes a certain type of person to survive here and it is difficult to isolate just what characteristics and traits one needs to make it work and successfully stick it out.
On average, Western males outlast Western females in Bangkok by a large margin, though having said that, a lot more males come here in the first place. Of all of the females I have known here, few have lasted more than a couple of years. Having said that, the small sample that I refer to comprises almost entirely English teachers, so in other professions, who knows? Of course, there are a lot of Western women who have stuck it out for many, many years.
For Western women, one of the big problems living here tends to be relationship-related. Western women married to a Western man who come here as an expat couple with him on a big fat salary and her left to her own devices can often have problems in time. I cannot tell you how many such couples I know and no matter how good their marriage is, and how in love they are, the husband invariably ends fooling around with the local girls, if not leaving his wife for one! Sorry Western women, but this is quite common! Thai women have broken up many a healthy marriage – and can be the last straw in a troubled relationship.
For Western women not in a relationship, many get frustrated at the difficulties they face in trying to find a good man in Thailand. Western men in Thailand are invariably taken by the local ladies and few give Western women the time of day. This can leave Western women to the Thai men. Unfortunately Thai men do not always have the best reputation in relationships and are not known for being entirely faithful. So for Western women seeking a serious, long term relationship, Thailand is not always the best bet.
Also for Western women, you need to consider that in Asia, it is men who are the leaders in the workplace. So for Western women seeking high ranking managerial positions – the sort of position with a package that would make staying on in Thailand a real option – you really are up against it. That is simply the way things are out here.
How old are you and at what point are you at, career wise? More and more Western employers don't take kindly to those who have itchy feet and enjoy a bit of adventure and travel all which goes to show a degree of independence. Therefore, a prolonged stay in Bangkok doing something different from what you wish to do career wise, may hamper your job chances when / if you return to your homeland. Personally (and speaking from experience as a business owner, and previously an employer), I think this is bloody ridiculous but that's another story altogether. There are of course exceptions to this rule and there are of course some employers who look for those with a little worldliness. So, if you do hang out in Bangkok for a long time doing some bum job that is not contributing to your long term employability, you do need to think about it all very carefully.
I have to say that I have met some of the nicest, friendliest folks in my time in Bangkok – lots of like-minded people; people who, just like me, wanted to get away from the plain old predictability of the West. Sometimes I feel that moving to Bangkok was like "coming home" in that I suddenly found all of these folks who had the same sort of outlook on life as I do – and that's really nice. Having said that, I have met some real drop kicks as well – but you get that anywhere. Unless you are a real loner, you need to have bunch of friends that you can go out with, muck around with and generally be yourself with. Reading books, using the Internet, laying on the beach, sinking copious quantities of piss, and perhaps most common of all amongst male expats in this city, chasing Thai village girls in the bars etc. all lose their appeal after so long…
You should make sure that whatever you are doing in Bangkok, you are constantly moving forward in life. Whether it be that your bank balance is increasing, your skills are improving, you are learning a new language, whatever, make sure you are always going forward. This will make your return to your homeland (or new frontier?) that much smoother. You really do need to try and keep busy while in Bangkok. With the Thai's relaxed attitudes towards most things, the cheap costs and especially the heat, it's just so easy to fall into a very relaxed lifestyle where you are actually doing very little. It is very easy to fall into the trap of spending your days in a relaxing, stress free manner but really, you are both doing and achieving nothing. I know some people who have gone to Thailand with plenty of money, have fallen into a sedentary lifestyle, have hit the bottle, put on weight and blown a lot of money. Most of them have gone on to regret the experience. All over Asia, but especially in Thailand, Westerners end up here because, if you have a bit of money, life is easy here. Be careful!
Basically, you don't need a lot of money to survive in Bangkok. If you are thinking about retirement, for around $US1,200 a month you can get by and have a pleasant lifestyle and if you have a nest egg of around $US200,000, you can realistically expect to be earning enough from this capital to sustain your lifestyle notwithstanding any economic collapse, swing in exchange rate or other such factors. Just don't retire too early like a lot of people seem to be doing at the moment. I cannot count the number of guys I know in their 30s who retired to Thailand early with less than $US 100K! I predict that many are going to get a rude shock when the money eventually runs out – and it will! The stock market not performing as they had hoped or even jut currency fluctuations could drastically upset the equation.
I believe it is best not to convert prices back to the currency of your home country. Of course it's impossible not to do this when you first arrive but after a while, I think it helps to think in terms of Bangkok prices, not prices from your homeland. If you do convert prices back into your own country's prices, things will seem cheap and you will invariably throw away a lot of money unnecessarily. If like me you do not have a huge amount of money, try and live like a Thai lives and you will save a lot of money. 1 baht = 100 satang and not X amount of $$ or pounds etc.
I know it might sound hard to believe, because Bangkok really is a very cheap city, but living a lifestyle exactly the same as you live in the West, in Bangkok, might actually cost more in Bangkok than in the West! Cars (with the exception of pick up trucks) are much more expensive in Thailand than the West and the cost of renting or buying a house is much more expensive. The better apartment and condominiums are very expensive too, sometimes more expensive than the West. Then factor in Western brand name clothes and Western food and if you led such a lifestyle I truly believe it would cost about the same or more than the West. Embracing Thailand and the Thai way of doing things will save you a lot of money as well as exposing you to new, possibly exciting things.
If you get into the groove and live somewhat like a Thai does, Bangkok can be a very easy place to live. Many people live here for years and adore it – the weather is warm all year round, food / rent / shopping / public transport / entertainment are all cheap if you live like a Thai and most Western goods are readily available.
I do however think that one always has to look at the bigger picture. Thailand can be a very easy place to live cheaply, and you can get into the thinking that "I only need X baht to live comfortably" so I do not really need to try and move ahead in life, working harder, looking for a better job or being more ambitious. I have always felt this is about the biggest mistake you can make in Thailand (with the obvious exception of marrying a bargirl). People change, and while you might like Thailand today, who's to know what tomorrow will bring? You also need to factor into the equation the changing environment in Thailand and the fact that Westerners are not the novelty they once were, and that if anything ,there has been a bit of a backlash against us. The Immigration Department has made it more difficult for Westerners to stay in Thailand and various law changes, such as upping the amount of money needed to stay here on a retirement visa all mean that one day, you might not meet the criteria need to stray on.
There is a danger of falling into the trap of working at a dead end job that you care little for, simply to finance an easy lifestyle. You could do this for years – and many do – but what happens if one day you wake up and decide that you want to go home? Back to Farangland! Where will you be? Would it even be possible?! You might have wasted the years of your life, the time when you have best earning potential and have little to show for it – financially or with regard to personal and professional development. Make the most of your time here and ensure that no matter what happens, you are always going forward – either by building up a nest egg or developing new skills and gaining valuable experience. Don't get yourself in a situation where if you returned home, you would be virtually unemployable with no financial resources at your disposal. No amount of fun would be worth that. One needs to have things beyond the professional or carnal aspects of their life.
Bangkok is a very big, polluted, drab and downright dirty city. I have never known a city to look so drab and a city to be quite so dirty and while people new to the city are able to transcend the issues of pollution and the fact that the city really is not aesthetically pleasing, eventually you admit that it really is grubby. To relieve the concrete jungle syndrome, you can easily take regular trips away from Bangkok. There are many interesting places nearby to escape such as Pattaya, Ayuthaya, Kanchanaburi and they are all less than two hours by public transport from Bangkok, a lot closer if you have a car. Within Bangkok, Lumpini Park and Suan Luang are reasonable parks that can help you to forget that you are in this great big Asian metropolis. Lumpini Place is a popular place to go for a run and one lap is 2.5 km. There are three different outdoor gyms within the park too, though how anyone could work out in the heat outdoor heat of Bangkok, I never know.
Living in the country of your birth, or at least the country where you spent your formative years brings with it certain stereotypes and norms, that is the perceived "normal" ways of doing things. You are expected to do certain things in a certain way and you will always be stereotyped in one way or another. (He's a computer programmer – therefore he must have been a geek with glasses at school or he was a quarterback in the school football team so he must had scored with all of the women etc – God how I hate these sorts of generalisations.) Living in another country relieves you of all of these stereotypes and allows you to just get on with your life as you wish. This provides a great chance for personal development as there is seemingly little here to stifle you or influence the way that you do things and the way that you go about your daily life. In Thailand (which means Land of the Free!), with the freedoms that this country allows, you have every opportunity to live your life as YOU please and not as the Government and society perceives you should. Also, other than the fact that you will likely be labelled as being rich, very few other prejudices will be held against you. All in all, this makes way for a potentially very satisfying experience. My personal philosophy about life is having the opportunity of getting what you want from it so long as that doesn't infringe detrimentally upon the lives of others. Thailand is one of few places that truly offers this. Further, in Thailand, where you never know totally what is going on or what may be around the next corner you really feel alive – and that is just great!
Life in the West seems to be getting more difficult. People need more skills to do their job, and need to work harder just to keep their job. More stressful work, longer hours and commuting in ever worsening traffic jams with less friendly and more uptight people is not many people's idea of fun. The demands of employers in the West seem to be getting greater and greater and at times, I feel that working for a company in the West is like selling your soul to the devil. Quite frankly, so many employers and bosses place what I consider totally unreasonable demands on folks and it seems to me that at the end of the work week, so many people have little energy and spend their time recovering only to have to go through the whole cycle again the following week. While some jobs in Thailand may place similar demands on people, most do not and the nature of work and the work environment, or at least the type of work that foreigners do is far less stressful. Prices, particularly property prices have been going crazy worldwide. Unless you have a really good job, the dream of home ownership is rapidly getting out of reach of many. And finally, there is a definite breakdown in the nature of Western society as it rapidly becomes a system of every man for himself. For many Westerners enjoying the Thai lifestyle, living in a Western society is over-rated. I would however warn against getting this idea in your mind. Thailand can be great, but believe me, it is far from perfect. Thailand also has many problems, it is just that they are different from what you may face in the West. You do need to try and make a balanced decision on where is best for you. A few years in Thailand will always be a good thing and I am a big proponent of people spending time in other countries. But if you are going to stay beyond a few years, I think you have to look at things very carefully before making a decision. There is a very real opportunity cost and if you are still young and not yet that successful in your professional life, then that opportunity cost is even greater!
I believe that success in Thailand very much comes down to being able to fit in with the Thais. It's their country and while there may be many things that you don't like or disagree with, at the end of the day there is very little that you can do about it – nor should you! If you find yourself complaining a lot, try to look at the big picture and look at all of the good things and the very real advantages of living in Thailand. If you still think it is not great, then it really might be time to leave.
The Thais are an easy bunch to like when you first come to the Kingdom, but over time, even the most positive Westerners can slowly become jaded by some of what goes on here. It doesn't take too many less than positive experiences to begin to feel that all of the locals are out to rip you off, and that they are only interested in your money. Unfortunately, for quite a lot of Thais, particularly those who you provide goods or services specifically to foreigners, this is true. Just when you thought you were beginning to fit in, and were beginning to believe that you were important to some of the locals, they do something, or something happens, that makes you realise that the complete opposite is true. A few experiences like this and while you might not quite be ready to leave, you begin to see the cracks. There are all sorts of other things that can play on your mind too. Get a car and you'll have the cops on your back all the time for alleged infringements and a payout, though truth be told, this seems to be less of a problem now than it was in the past. Constantly being overcharged and receiving shoddy service can all make you think just what you are doing here. Thailand is not paradise and it is a long way from perfect, but when this sort of thing happens – and believe me, at some time it will – just remember why you left your little corner of Farangland in the first place. Thailand may not be perfect, and the same old frustrations will occur over and over again, but generally, most people still find that life in Thailand is better overall than life in the West.
Last but not least, Asia changes you. Asia really is so much different from the West and you don't have to be here that long for it to take a hold on you. Your whole perspective on life changes and you find yourself questioning some of your previous beliefs. The unrelenting heat, the spicy food, the huge contrasts from the incredibly poor and the horribly deformed to the obscenely rich picture perfect model like creatures, the diseases and illnesses, the corruption and cronyism and the whole maddening noise and pace of life all get under your skin and can have a profound effect. It changes some people for the better, others for the worse. If you stay here a while, it WILL change you – absolutely no doubt about it! When and / or if you return to your homeland, you will no doubt suffer "reverse culture shock" and I'm afraid that I don't have any advice on how to solve that one.
There seems to be this barrier at about the three year mark for a lot of people who move to Bangkok. It seems to me that if one is able to successfully get beyond the three year mark (barrier?), then one could well be here for a long, long time – maybe forever. Bangkok gets better with time as you slowly come to grips with the way that things work, the way to get the best out of the Thais, the best most efficient ways to get around the city and know where all of the best places to eat are, including where all of the best little 25 baht a plate vendors are hidden. You know where to go to find the cheaper / better apartment buildings and generally the struggles that you initially had slowly become distant memories as life in Bangkok becomes easier for you than life back in your homeland would now be – and you start to consider Bangkok home.
The reasons why I continue to stay in Bangkok are not entirely clear to those around me and I prefer not to openly say what they are. I would be lying if I said that Bangkok continues to fulfill my requirements. It doesn't. I find that more and more often I don't like the fact that as foreigners living in Thailand we really are second class citizens. I don't like the way that after so many years living here we still have to report to Immigration every 90 days. I don't like the way that we never get anything more than a 1 year visa – of course there are options around this but they are very time consuming and expensive. I know deep down that I cannot stay in Thailand for the rest of my life. It's not that I'm scared that I might fall down that slippery slope that so many other foreigners have fallen down and end up a drunk who spends all his time in the naughty bars. No, that is just not me. I simply think I have lived in Thailand for long enough that I have simply got it out of my system. I have visited most places and really done pretty much everything I want to do. I like the country and like the people but having lived more than half of my adult life here, I craze something new. As I approach middle age, I am looking for something different in my life. I do think that Thailand would be a great place to retire to. Oh yes, first class in that respect! You've got to be introspective and keep asking yourself if living in Thailand is what you really want?
And I think you always need an exit strategy. Can you simply leave your job or do you have to give a few months' notice? What about your condo? Can you get out of the rental contract early, or would you be able to sell it? What about those major assets you have built up? Cars aren't as easily sold in Thailand as they are in the West. It is good to have an exit strategy and plan in mind.
Living in Thailand – and I guess anywhere in this region – is exciting and invigorating and I have to admit that I fear that one's return to the West would not be an easy transition to make. It's a bit like eating the spicy food in Bangkok with it's exotic and diverse ingredients and flavours. At first it doesn't seem to be palatable but after a while you get used to it and before too long you develop a preference for it. Going back to regular Western food becomes a very bland and somewhat boring experience. So too with living in Asia. The experience can be unusual, perhaps not entirely comfortable at first but you soon become to appreciate that it is always exciting, dynamic and quite simply, you never know what will happen next. You learn to expect the unexpected. After returning to your homeland it may well be the same old routine, day after day, oh so predictable, which after Asia must be oh so boring. Once Asia is in your blood, I think it's hard to get out!
The Tourism Authority of Thailand has marketed the country under the "Amazing Thailand" promotion and it's easy to understand why they came up with this name. So many people in Thailand will say to me, "I've got a story for you and you probably won't believe me but it really is true". I've been here long enough to know that they really do not need to preface a story with such words as I have lived here long enough to know that many of the things that happen in Thailand truly are amazing and it is seldom ever boring…and that's just great as far as I'm concerned. It's probably what keeps me in Bangkok. It is one big roller coaster ride, endlessly fascinating but at times, endlessly frustrating. IT'S NEVER BORING!
There is one thing I have to say here, though, almost at the end. A number of guys move to Thailand because the love the bar scene, read the naughty bar scene. The bar scene gets boring, it really does! If that is your reason for visiting Thailand, visit the country regularly and you are less likely to tire of it, but if you come to Thailand specifically for that reason and go down to the bars most nights, you will get bored!
Finally, you can read this site, other similar sites and as many books as you like, but trust me, there is nothing like time on the ground in Thailand. Spend a few months in the country and see how it is, without committing yourself totally. That'll give you a good idea of what it is like to live here, which really is completely different to what it is like holidaying here. Thailand is so different to the West and as I have mentioned, you do need to reconsider your Western ways – and you may be asked you compromise your principles – if you want to survive, and prosper, in Thailand. Keep an open mind, don't rock the boat and try and go with the flow. And trust me on one thing. If anything here really sounds crazy, talking about Thailand to somebody who hasn't lived the Thai life is like trying to explain colours to a blind man. Life in Thailand has to be experienced to be believed.