Readers' Submissions

Retirement in Thailand

  • Written by Felix
  • December 15th, 2006
  • 11 min read


The devil has ridden me to always work hard during my professional life and even enjoy it, but I swore to compensate for this with a more quiet life in retirement, that is if I reached retirement age. The average life expectancy in my profession is 60 years and retirement age for the surviving is 65. From early on I planned for my retirement in a romantic space, far away from the smog filled cities in Europe and Asia where I spent my work life.

My first choice was a high plateau in the Swiss alps, two thousand metres above sea level, approachable only by cable car. I spent there energizing summer holidays, but then I discovered that this height was not beneficent to my heart. So I swapped to the Canary Islands of Spain. There I spent winter holidays in an apartment over the Atlantic with colourful sunsets. But when I grew older I became more sensitive to the cold. Suddenly the subtropical climate of the Canary Islands was too harsh for me. So I spent the last winter holidays before my retirement travelling to South East Asia, looking for a future home. I was familiar with the region, I had been in and out of East Asia during my professional life, but I had never perceived it as a perpetual holiday destination.

At first look the best place I found was Sanya, the settlement on the southernmost part of China on the Island of Hainan. The climate is cooler than Thailand in April but warmer than the Canary Islands. I speak Chinese, I like to eat Chinese food, but there were two caveats. In China the real estate boom had just begun, there was no way to rent comfortable lodging quarters at a reasonable price, and the visa question was precarious. I could get a 3 month visa in Hong Kong, but would I get it repeatedly? I had met in China engineers of Siemens who built a power station for that county but had to make a visa run every 30 days.

So Sanya was crossed off from the list. Next stop North Luzon. The climate there is agreeable, one January night in Olongapo I even had to put on my padded leather blouson for sleeping. The people speak English and like to be addressed in Spanish. No communication problems. And they have a very subtle kind of humour. What they do not have is beachside accommodations that could weather hurricanes and volcano eruptions. Hasta la vista, P.I. I never made it to Bali, where a colleague of mine had bought a house but abandoned it a few years later. I do like Singapore, but it is much too expensive for a European retiree. North of Singapore, in Malaysia I found politeness not as highly developed as in other Asian countries.

If you wish to be surrounded by kind and smiling people the best choice is Thailand. There I had an old friend who was willing to travel-test with me various places. Our first destination was Phuket. A famous holiday paradise but for my taste just too rainy. Next stop Hua Hin. They have nice beaches full of horse apples. And the humidity is appalling. I visited Khao Lak when it still was a nature reservate and populated by sea gypsies. Khao Lak was nice for swimming, but there were many hungry mosquitoes. One day, when we had bought a colourful big Papaya at the restaurant on the promontory, all the way back one mosquito tried like crazy to put his sting into the hard fruit peel, without discovering that there was softer prey nearby, holding the net with the papaya.

To Pattaya I came only to visit an old colleague who lived there in retirement. This man had been convinced to build a beautiful house on the far side of the railway. There he sat all alone in the countryside without regular transportation to the beach and the sois of downtown Pattaya. His teeruk brought him lots of Heineken and helped him to spend a fortune on the needs of her Isaan family. It really was a fortune, but it was all he had had, and now he got problems with his bank in cold Europe. His children convinced him to leave Thailand and never come back. While he departed I discovered that Pattaya had the most agreeable climate of all the places I had visited in Thailand.

This was to be my future home, I decided. At first I lived in a quiet hotel on the Hill and looked for an apartment to rent. It should be on the beach but as quiet as the Swiss alps. There are some nice and quiet lodgings between the Pattaya tower and the seaside, but they are extremely expensive. A Royal Princess lives there. Jomtien Beach Road would be a good location, but there is noisy traffic on the street between the condos and the beach. At the end of the Jomtien Beach Road, behind a popular fish restaurant I discovered a high rise apartment house. It looked solid and beautiful, all the balconies drowned in the flames of bougainvilleas.

They were willing to rent a three room apartment for 20K, but for half a year minimum. That was OK for me, I always enjoy the six winter months and flee Thailand when April arrives. As I was new to the country I thought 20K was a reasonable price, less expensive than Spain or Switzerland. The owners of the apartment were an old Chinese Thai couple. When I arrived for my first retirement season, they asked me if I wanted anything improved. I did indeed, I asked them to add mosquito netting doors to the glass doors of the balcony, so that I could keep the sliding doors open all day, all night. They did this without charging anything. I had had to pay a deposit, but on leaving I got it back completely without even asking for it.

One of the rooms could be used as a guest apartment, with its own bathroom and balcony. So I invited all my relatives to spend their holidays with me. As my younger brother has a daughter who worked in a travel office, he got discounted tickets for himself and his wife. They spent most afternoons at the swimming pool in front of the building, where you could swim and look at the sea beyond. I had discovered too late that the seawater at our beach was very dirty, polluted by the water of a klong that was released into the sea in front of our building. To swim in the sea, one had to walk fifteen minutes up the beach road, where the water became fine. In the evenings we sat on the balcony which was large enough to accommodate four easy chairs side by side. We looked at the dark sea with the swaying lights of the fisher boats, opened Leo bottles and talked of old times.

My daughter, who worked in Japan, also came over. But she is not a family type. Every evening when it became dark she escaped to the nightlife in downtown Pattaya and came back at three o'clock in the morning, happy and unharmed. I for myself have no interest in nightlife, because my libido evaporated after I turned sixty. In fact I never visited a go-go-club in Pattaya. But I enjoy sitting in Walking Street in the hours of waning light between five and seven pm, watching people come and go. My days are usually spent swimming and writing detective novels on my laptop, my eyes fixed at the blue sea and the green palm trees.

When I was informed that the rent was to be raised next season, I went looking for pricier accommodation. What I found was a solid condo with more than two hundred units south of the Ocean Marina. Rent prices ranged between 2K (Studio of 40 square meters without air-conditioning) and 10K (three room flats completely equipped). They were not as luxurious as in the house at the end of Jomtien Beach Road, but still of a high standard. The condo was just eight years old, and some of its units had never found a buyer because of the Asian Economic Crisis of '97. To the left of this condo is a temple, where the victims of traffic accidents, AIDS and old age are burned. In the first flat I rented for half a year my bedroom window opened to this temple. Every Buddhist temple in the world has a bell tower and a drum tower. In our neighbourhood temple the bell tower is equipped with loudspeakers that are able to reach the fishermen on the gulf all the way down to Port Sihanouk and Ko Samui. On some days (or should I say some nights?) the loudspeakers open fire early in the morning (between four and six am) to relay Thai radio news. As I sleep with open windows, I fell out of my bed when I heard this sound attack for the first time.

In our condo live Thai teachers who work in the nearby school. They wrote a collective letter to the abbot, asking him to turn on the loudspeakers later in the morning, because they needed their sleep. As far as I know, the abbot responded that his mission was more important than their sleep. Well, this was my introduction to the concept of charity in Thai Buddhism. (But I should not get too partial. I still remember a Reader's Submission that described how people dying from AIDS were taken care of by the monks of a temple, "without doctors, without nurses" showing up).

When I got familiar with the manager of the condo she told me that they had an 80 sq m Penthouse apartment that could be rented for monthly 8K the year round or bought for under one million Baht. The flat was exquisitely furnished in the style of a suite in a Five-star-hotel.

I moved in and never regretted it. There were a few improvements to be made. I added mosquito netting doors, solid bathroom windows and put an insulation cover on the cement roof that uncovered worked like a Middle East oven, reflecting the day's heat to the rooms below after sundown. I installed double glass windows which kept the noise of the temple loudspeakers out, and I raised a big parabolic antenna, to become independent of UBC.

It is only five minutes by foot to the Sukhumvit highway, where transportation is available, and where there is an Internet cafe, in which I became an ardent reader of Stickman's website, which originally was presented under the name of "Chopsticks." Just besides is a mini-mart where one can buy daily necessities. Nine-eleven is two kilometres down the Sukhumwit highway, Tesco-Lotos ten kilometres up. Only to buy cheese from New Zealand and Oil from the historic Olive Mountain in Israel I have to drive to the friendship store in downtown Pattaya. For beverages I only have to walk to the next building, but most beverages in Thailand are highly overpriced, with the exception of Mekong Whisky, which for me is a poison that makes you feel how alcohol kills your brain cells. (One of our contributors claims the same for Chang beer).

I am able to lead a life of economic self sufficiency as it is now propagated in the Land of Smiles. I am very happy when I stay in Thailand, and I feel that it is the best I could find. There is one problem I still must attack. In Pattaya in summer often the water coming from the public water works is drying up. Our condo then buys its supplies from big water tank cars and pumps it up to containers on the roof. This water is not very clean, and I suspect that is was the source of a bad infection I caught last year. The doctors in the hospital where I was treated told my relatives that they could not preserve my life, if I stayed longer in Pattaya, so they arranged to fly me back to cold Europe. There I survived, but now I have a problem with my health insurance. They will give me protection in Thailand only for forty five days. Even if I fly two times a winter to Thailand, that would still reduce my retirement stay to just three months a year. I am not sure how to cope with this.

What it proves is that I was right not to burn all bridges to Europe but keep a small apartment all year round for the summer months, which I now can use for longer spans of time, if necessary. Being an old ginger, how many choices do I have? I am sure that the warm climate of Thailand has prolonged my life expectancy. And I will try to still get as much of it as I can.

Stickman's thoughts:

A really nice tale. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it, and learning of the decisions you made along the way to your retirement.

The retirement in Thailand issue interests many – more stories on this issue are very welcome.