Would I Have Been Happier in Thailand?
Codefreeze’s excellent article “Should You Move to Thailand” struck a real chord in me. His article is written towards the younger crowd and ultimately concludes that notwithstanding a permanent move to Thailand will not lead to great financial wealth, it will lead to a happier life.
Chalermchai wrote a nice response, “Lost Opportunities? Stuff That – Just Do It”, which highlighted how, at different times during his life, he could have made the choice to move to Thailand (or Asia generally) and regrets that he did not do so.
Those two submissions are very relevant to my situation in life and the choices that I had to make. In this submission, I will consider those choices and discuss whether I would have been happier living permanently in the West or Thailand.
First, it would be useful to highlight my background. I was born in Europe to European parents. My parents divorced early and my father won custody (you don’t hear about that happening too often). My father worked in the shipping industry and as a result, I moved around a lot. I lived in various countries, and attended many different schools.
Out of all of the places I lived in, two cities in particular became etched into my heart: Bangkok and Perth. I lived in Bangkok in the 1980s and by the late 1980s, my father dragged me, kicking and screaming, to Perth. Bangkok left such a big mark on me that I really did not want to leave. The whole time I was in Perth, I was plotting how I would return to Bangkok. By 1989, I returned to Europe. By the time I was approaching university age, I had two choices: either attend a European university, or I could study in Australia. I wanted to go back to Bangkok, but my parents refused, so I opted for Perth instead.
University life in Perth was quite good. I had a good circle of friends, I participated in a lot of activities, I would sail, rollerblade and surf. There was good support for whatever hobby or activity that I was interested in. However, Bangkok had truly left its mark and so I continued to pine away and plan how I would return. I suppose my intent to return to Bangkok had become a bit of an obsession.
My strategy for return was simple. I received the Bangkok Post each week (the paper copy, as there was no world wide web back then) and I would scan the jobs sections, looking at what was on offer and what qualifications were required. I adjusted my minors slightly in order to make me a more suitable candidate for a position in Bangkok. I was studying law, which would easily get me a job in either Australia or back in Europe. However, what became quickly apparent was that there were very few positions available for my qualification in Thailand. I could settle for something else, but I really didn’t want to return to Thailand without a reasonable earning capacity. Towards the end of my degree, it was apparent that I would not be able to secure one of the expatriate positions at an international law firm in Bangkok unless I first had work experience in an international law firm in a Western country. A couple of years would suffice.
I therefore decided to stay longer in Australia to obtain that work experience. I was employed at one of Australia’s top law firms and started building up my experience. I was preparing for a move to Thailand, and building up a list of contacts in the Bangkok offices of the major law firms.
However, somewhere along the lines, things changed that de-railed my plans. Firstly, when I was ready to make my move, my timing was off. Most work related to Thailand was being done in offices in either Hong Kong or Singapore. Secondly, most international firms were either downsizing their Bangkok operations or closing up in Bangkok altogether. It was still possible to get a job, but salary and benefits would not be as lucrative and my future would be uncertain as the demand for Western legal services in Thailand was not that strong. In Singapore or Hong Kong, I could at least gain admission as a practitioner, but in Thailand, I would be no more than a consultant on non-Thai law, and never a registered Thai lawyer. My alternative was to move to Thailand in a different capacity. I could work in insurance underwriting, marketing, accounting, business consulting, teaching, lecturing, banking etc. There were other possibilities. However, the real expatriate positions were hired from overseas and were usually of a more senior management level. I was still a fairly fresh-faced graduate.
As you’d expect, and as Chalermchai highlights as one of his regrets, I opted to stay in the West. At that stage, the decision was very much a compromise and I probably even tried lying to myself that I was happier in Perth than I would be in Thailand. It was hard because moving to Thailand had been an important dream that had motivated me for many years. At the end of the day, the money and secure career path won out over the lifestyle option available in Thailand.
Unlike Codefreeze and Chalermchai, I do not regret my decision at all. Even with the benefit of hindsight, I still consider I made the best decision. When I say “best”, I don’t just mean from a financial viewpoint, but also in terms of my happiness. This will become apparent in my discussion below. In addition, although I originally had a hard time letting go of the dream, I eventually reached a point in life where I was very happy with my lifestyle and what I had achieved and could not see that I would have been as happy had I lived in Thailand.
Four Alternative Pathways
There are at least four primary directions that my life could have taken: first, I could have stayed in Europe for university and then continued the rest of my life there; second, I could have returned to Thailand in my teens for university, and stayed in Thailand; third, I could have finished university in Perth and then returned to Thailand; and fourth, the option that I actually chose, of university in Perth and then working in Perth.
Option 1 – Stay in Europe
Staying in Europe would easily have resulted in unhappiness. I couldn’t stand the weather and much of the year is spent in-doors. I am an outdoors, active person, so that wouldn’t suit me. There are many other reasons as well, but let’s simplify with “lifestyle incompatibility”.
Option 2 – Moving to Thailand as a Teen
Moving to Thailand for education and then work would have put me in a similar position to some of my friends. These were people that I knew from my school days. Their parents were originally expatriates who had been stationed in Thailand. The parents loved the country so much that they opted to stay, even though ultimately it meant giving up the expatriate position, as these are never long-term. Some of these friends were even born in Thailand and even obtained Thai citizenship. Looking at their lifestyles and positions in life, most are doing okay. They are not fabulously wealthy (although some of their parents are). Neither are they dirt poor. Most are well-off because their parents saved and invested during their expatriate stint. The jobs that these friends are engaged in are not too bad, but they are not expatriate positions and only allow for a modest lifestyle. These friends do need to keep a careful (or relatively careful) eye on their finances and I don’t see how they can be putting away very much for retirement. For some, this isn’t a problem because they will inherit a lot from their parents, but others may have difficulty when retirement is forced upon them.
Considering the fact that each time I visited my friends in Thailand as a teenager, we became very wild and had a view that the law did not apply to us, I suspect that there was a very real chance that had I gone to university in Thailand, I would either now be dead or sitting in a jail cell. This is what happened to one of my best friends there and he is still sitting in jail today. To me, this is a somber reminder of how naïve and innocent I used to be, believing that I could do as I pleased in Thailand, when in fact this is not the case. See my submission “The Loss of Innocence”, back in December 2010, for a bit more on this aspect of my life and of the underlying dangers of Thailand.
Option 3 – Moving to Thailand after University
For option three, moving to Thailand after university, and perhaps with a bit of work experience, is a more difficult scenario to analyse. Initially, I am sure that I would have been in paradise. I would be living in a nice central apartment, earning a good income and possibly even getting chauffeured around. However, paradise would be temporary. Most positions with international companies would have been for a fixed term of perhaps two years. After that, head office would either be recalling me, or pressuring me to move to another office where there is a shortage of legal resources (e.g. Middle East and China). Eventually, my expatriate lifestyle would have to come to an end. I would struggle to transfer to another Thailand based expatriate position and eventually I would be taking on a local job and getting paid a substantially lower salary. During my expatriate employment, I might be able to save enough to purchase a condo, or risk buying a house and land, but after that, my income would not be generating any real savings and I would be tightening my drawstrings as my discretionary income dries up.
I have seen people that have gone through exactly this experience. They came to Thailand with degrees from big universities and work experience from international companies. Some were assigned to Thailand by the company they did their graduate program with. Others applied for assignments in Thailand via jobs advertised in their home countries. Some had never previously contemplated working in Thailand and knew almost nothing about the country. However, after moving to Thailand and living the expatriate lifestyle, they did not want to return home. Therefore, when the assignment ended, they opted to stay. This meant quitting their high paying job and living off of their savings until they secured new work. Most took the easy path and became teachers or lecturers. A few started their own businesses.
Most of these friends do appear to be reasonably happy. Yes, they whine about traffic, incompetent bosses and unnecessary red-tape, but they are still happy. Some share a large apartment in Sukhumvit. That is not a bad arrangement when you are young, but not really where you want to be in life as you start to get a bit older. Money is of course an issue. The other thing I noticed is that work consumes a lot of their time.
I also have friends (and friends of friends) working in expatriate positions in either law firms or international accounting firms. None of them really planned on coming to Thailand, and it was really just an opportunity that presented itself for a change of scenery. Even for those expatriates who have spent over a year in Thailand, they have spent so much of their time working (including Saturdays and Sundays) that they have absorbed very little of the culture of Thailand. Their general knowledge of the country is incredibly poor. For that type of assignment, it strikes me that those expatriates are so insulated by their work that it really doesn’t matter what country they have been assigned to.
Of those that started businesses, most of the businesses have either failed (and the owner has fled Thailand) or the business is only shuffling along. I can think of only two friends who have businesses that are doing reasonably well (interior design and holistic medicine), and only one who has a business that is doing incredibly well (transport). Most of my friends with their own businesses are not that happy. I haven’t gotten the full story from anyone as to just what is making them unhappy, but my bet is the stress of micromanaging, the red tape, and the requirement to always be working is taking its toll. I am sure that the uncertainty of a secure or sustainable income is a factor too.
One common element with all of my friends is that they do not see their time in Thailand as permanent. That view is shared even by those friends who were born in Thailand. There seems to be sufficient uncertainty as to securing continued work or income that most recognize they may not be able to keep living in Thailand permanently or else they are unhappy with how things have changed in Thailand. In my younger years, I was always quite upset when one of my friends would say they do not know how much longer they will continue to stay in Thailand. Interestingly, most of these friends are still there.
Option 4 – Education and Work in Perth
The fourth option is to have done exactly what I did. I stayed in Perth.
Initially when I made this decision, I was torn and had to try to convince myself that I was happier in Perth. My heart was in Thailand because I enjoyed a fantastic time growing up there. Each holiday back to Thailand was also fantastic. Further, even though Perth presented a lot of good opportunities and a very healthy lifestyle, my work was a big part of my unhappiness. I had to work fairly long hours and there was a considerable amount of stress due to the amount of responsibility resting on my shoulders to achieve results for clients. However, the money was very good and the nature of work was good. Apart from the stress, I actually enjoyed my job (within reason). I didn’t mind working into the night (but did detest the times when I had to come in on weekends).
I eventually transferred to a different company, where I was given more responsibility and autonomy, but where there was less stress due to the nature of the company and the work. I travelled overseas frequently. The job was more challenging, with a greater diversity of work. I started to really enjoy work. As I climbed the corporate ladder, my job satisfaction increased markedly. I enjoyed (and still enjoy) coming to work and do not suffer that feeling of dread that I once did on Sunday nights when I knew the weekend had come to an end. It is also very unusual for me to work long hours in my current job and I have the ability to work flexible hours. If I work on a weekend, I can take time off during the week instead. If I spend time overseas, I can be entitled to additional time off in the form of R&R.
Therefore, on the work front, I feel that Perth is an easy win over Bangkok. An expatriate posting would have worked me to the bone. Any other job may have been too mundane for me. Job longevity and security would have been real issues as well.
On the non-work side of things, Perth also offers more to me than Bangkok. I originally did not believe this to be true, but I regularly spend time in Thailand and while there, seek out various hobbies. I have since discovered that even though Bangkok may seem to offer most of the same activities that I enjoy in Perth, the quality (which impacts the ability to enjoy the activity) just isn’t there.
To give you some examples, I am quite active outdoors. I enjoy sailing, boating, fishing, rollerblading, paintballing, rock-climbing and mountain-biking. All of these activities can be enjoyed in both Australia and Thailand. In Perth, I do all of them regularly. For example, I can simply hitch up my boat onto my car in my front yard at any time and drive 15 to 20 minutes to get to either the Swan River or the Indian Ocean and drop my boat into the water. I have full freedom to use my boat whenever I want to, and it is my boat. If I lived in Thailand, I would have to travel to Bang Saen (boring), Pattaya, Ban Phe (Rayong), etc, which is likely to be at least a 2 hour drive. I would then need to hire a boat, and it would be a crummy plywood boat with no real performance characteristics. I would also lose any privacy and not have the enjoyment of piloting my own boat.
Similarly, if I wanted to go wakeboarding, I would need to go to one of the lakes, such as Taco Lake, rather than be able to get towed in front of the beautiful scenery along the Swan River. Most of the coastal areas such as Pattaya and Jomtien are out of the question as it tends to be too windy and hence too choppy to have a good ride.
Fishing in Thailand and Australia would be relatively on par. In Perth, it doesn’t take me long to get my boat into local fishing waters, whilst if I lived in Bangkok, I would need to travel to the coast first (fish farms are not really my idea of sport fishing). In both cases, the coastal areas near the cities are pretty much over-fished so the fishing is not that spectacular any more. Perth still has the advantage in the sense that I still have the benefit of using my own boat. This would be too difficult in Thailand unless I had a bit of money.
As you will have guessed, for rollerblading, Perth will easily win over Bangkok. I can step out of my front door and have access to bicycle paths that will take me more kilometers than I would care to rollerblade in a day. For Bangkok, the city area is not great, as the footpaths are jagged and even walking is sometimes a challenge. There are places to rollerblade, such as Lumphini Park, National Stadium, etc, but these are quite confined, crowded and don’t provide the same level of freedom (or fresh air). There is also the hassle of getting to these locations, whereas in Perth I just step out my front door and start skating.
Indoor rock climbing is a bit of a struggle in Bangkok. I have found a few places that offer it, but what is provided is not that great and in most cases more oriented towards children rather than professionals. In Perth, we have large air-conditioned warehouses, filled with walls. The owners, who are climbers themselves, regularly change the courses to create new challenges and each climb offers several different degrees of difficulty. It is also easier to find good quality climbing gear in Perth than Bangkok (in Bangkok, check out the sports section of Amarin Plaza and you will find a limited selection). Outdoor rock climbing options are pretty similar in both places. Perth has coastal limestone cliffs and some great disused granite quarries. Thailand probably wins in terms of most scenic climbs, with the limestone cliffs in Krabi being breathtaking. However, that is a plane ride away from Bangkok. Safety is a concern with climbing in Thailand though.
Paintball… I don’t know how to start on this one, as this is something that I am quite passionate about. Thailand does have paintball. It also has airsoft, which is banned in Perth. That is a win for Thailand. The Thai paintball teams do compete internationally, so that makes them equal with Perth. However, paintball is a dangerous sport and even becoming just a little relaxed about the rules or neglecting to maintain safety equipment can easily result in a serious injury. Even in Australia, people have died as a result of playing paintball. Given Thailand’s reputation for poor attention to safety, this concerns me. I bring my own safety gear, which I know is in excellent condition, but even so, there are still real risks. The other thing I have noticed is that Thai players are usually not as passionate about the sport as the teams I play with in Australia. Whereas we play for the adrenaline and train hard, spending a lot of time on strategy and tactics, I find that the Thai players seem less concerned with strategy and possibly just enjoy shooting each other.
Mountain-biking is available in both countries. There are cycle trails near Bangkok (on the other side of the river, South of Klong Toey). There are also some nice country trails in other provinces. However, Perth has good trails close to home (15 minute drive with my bike on a bike-rack, or I can cycle for two to three hours to get to a good off-road trail). In addition, I can also have a general cycle on decent cycle paths just by my home, and enjoy beautiful scenery including river and ocean views. Given this, I would be more likely to mountain bike (and cycle generally) regularly while living in Perth, compared to Bangkok, where it would probably be a very occasional thing (if at all).
My final major activity is sailing. Thailand wins on this one because the sailing scene down in Jomtien is good. There are some very nice people at the Royal Varuna yacht club (Thai and Western) and the waterways and islands make for some interesting courses. Perth comes a very close second, with the Fremantle Sailing Club being world famous and having several world record holders as its members. There are some very experienced members and first class facilities. However, the coastline off Perth is a little boring from my perspective. Also, I find some of the people at the FSC to be quite stuck-up and possibly even a little discriminatory towards my Thai wife. Further, it is also very difficult to obtain a berth at the club for a boat. The waiting list takes several years and it is expensive just getting onto and remaining on the list each year.
Therefore, from a lifestyle point of view, Option 4 definitely shows some real benefits over the other options. Even though most of my preferred activities could be carried out in Thailand as well, the reality is I would not carry them out to the same extent because the quality is not there and there is a much greater hassle in being able to carry them out. In addition, there are other, softer issues, that improves the Perth lifestyle such as open spaces, green parks, a beautiful clean city, clean air, clean water, lack of traffic, healthy food, multicultural non-racist society, and being able to invite friends over for a back yard bbq and swim in the pool at the drop of a hat.
Justification for Option 4
Reflecting on my career achievements and the lifestyle that I lead, I would definitely say I am better off in Perth than Bangkok. I have a substantially greater discretionary income. My retirement is secured. I have a nice house, with a back yard that has been turned into a mini-resort. I have a boat. I have lots of toys and I regularly engage my spare time with activities that I am very passionate about.
Also very important is that I have some very good friends in Perth. As I highlighted at the start of this submission, I am not originally from Perth. However, Perth is very multicultural, and most people here are not originally from Australia. Even those that are, tend to be quite open and welcoming (although there are some exceptions with certain stuck-up social groups, but they are a minority). My friends are intelligent, normal people. They are honest, trustworthy and loyal and the kind of people that you are happy to consider your friend.
Looking at Thailand, I have found true friendship is much more difficult to find. For one thing, there are fewer people that I would want to be friends with. There are fewer people that I have something in common with. About 70% of my Western friends in Bangkok are from my school days. Then again, I generally don’t spend more than four weeks at a time in Bangkok, so I am usually not looking for new friends either.
One thing I have noticed with my friends in Thailand though is that most do not pursue any real hobbies. Some will have a wine and games night on the weekend. One guy loves deep sea fishing. A couple like sailing. A couple play a bit of cricket etc. All enjoy a bit of travel now and then. However, that is about it. Every now and then some might go to a resort and rent a jet ski or do some paddling or mountain biking etc, but that may be once or twice a year. Most get caught up in work and then spend their free time catching up in a pub or bar, drinking a few beers, having a chin wag and then going home. To me, that is not much of a lifestyle.
I therefore maintain my position, that for me, the better option is to live in the West, not Thailand. I now enjoy the best of both worlds. I can travel to Thailand whenever I want, and spend big if I like. When I eventually decide to retire I can choose whether I want to stay in Perth or Bangkok (or elsewhere in Thailand). I will probably spend part of the year in each location, with the majority of the year in Perth, simply because I enjoy the options that are available to me.
Of course, what I have highlighted is particular to my situation in life and is tied to what makes me happy. Everyone is different. However, I believe I have raised a lot of important points that people need to carefully weigh up when they are deciding whether to take the plunge or not. Had I taken the plunge, I would probably still be reasonably happy (if not in jail or dead), but the situation I am in now is far better than anything I could enjoy had I made the move. I agree that this is specific to my circumstance, but it does highlight that living in the West is not all bad and does not have to be the debt and marriage trap that Codefreeze has described. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. I think it is important to highlight that in exactly the same way, living in Thailand could also become absolute hell if you make the wrong decisions (or if your luck runs out). I recommend people put their immediate passions to one side for a moment and look at the realistic long term outcomes of each decision. To me, finding a job that I enjoy doing is an important part of being happy. Ultimately, I didn’t think I would be able to find that in Thailand, hence the reason why I am elsewhere.
Wonderfully balanced article!
What I found most interesting was right towards the end when you described the social scene here amongst expats and the way that so many have so little in common. It's something I very much agree with and something I lament. I have spent well over half of my adult life in Thailand yet all my best friends are back in NZ and I only see them once or maybe twice (if they pass through Thailand) a year. A lot of friendships in Thailand are only skin deep and as I have said numerous time, many friends here are really just what I term "drinking buddies".