Bangkok is crowded, congested, expensive (compared to the rest of the country), polluted, sweltering and that's just the start of an extensive list of things that keep the Thai capital off the list of the most liveable cities. The most popular spots on Phuket are similarly crowded and even more expensive. Pattaya is congested and its infrastructure is struggling to cope with population growth. Chiang Mai has friendly locals, is inexpensive and has good weather, but its infrastructure needs investment to keep up with the massive influx of foreigners and at times traffic in the northern city feels like Bangkok. So what are the alternatives for a liveable city in Thailand? For the expat anxious to avoid the hot spots and their respective issues, where in Thailand has a reasonable cost of living, an established expat community and decent infrastructure?
450 km up the road from Bangkok is Khon Kaen, a place I once thought I could settle, a city in which I was offered a decent job but turned it down. There's a fair-sized farang community in the city of Khon Kaen and like most of the cities in Isaan, it's made up of a lot of teachers and retirees. There's nothing wrong with Khon Kaen per se, I just think there's a better option.
120 km up the road from Khon Kaen is Udon Thani. Truth be told, Udon does not have any compelling reasons to visit, but then it really doesn't have much wrong with it either – and that's not something you can say about a lot of places in Thailand, at least from the perspective of a foreign resident.
Udon is one of increasingly few places in Thailand where locals seem to actually like the idea that foreigners wish to live in their city. I did not detect one single local looking at me in Udon in such a way that my presence was unwanted.
It's the first thing I notice in Udon – specifically Udon as opposed to other centres in Isaan – is that the locals are genuinely friendly. Yes, it's a cliché to describe people across the region as friendly, but in Udon they really are. This is not a one-trip observation but something I have been saying for years.
You wouldn't call the city of Udon wealthy, but then neither would you describe it as poor. Across Isaan, many carry their wealth rather different from Bangkok where brand names and showiness are all the rage.
Don't go thinking that there's no money in Udon and the locals live on fried insects or other Isaan delicacies, nor that locals eat cuts of meat Bangkokians would feed only to their dog. There is this misconception that Isaan is poor. It once was, but things have changed and the urban areas are coming along nicely. In Udon's biggest shopping centre, Central Plaza, the first store on the ground floor is, I kid you not, an official Rolex store where some timepieces cost as much as a new BMW.
The good people of Isaan show their wealth a little differently to their big city cousins. In Udon, as in much of Isaan, the wealthy often wear traditional Thai garb – Thai silk outfits for the women and safari suits for the men. They tend to be quiet and reserved – genuine conservatives. The one giveaway that they have money is the gold they wear, some old biddies draping gold over every available part of their body.
Udon feels more international with every visit. The Gourmet Market supermarket in the basement of the giant Central Plaza shopping centre has the same products you find in downtown Bangkok supermarkets with, for example, fresh cherries of various grades from America and Canada, salmon / beef / lamb from New Zealand and aisles of food products from Australia and America. And with another Villa supermarket recently opening in Udon – that makes two – to add to the Gourmet Market, there is no need to take monthly shopping trips to Bangkok for your favourite imported food items.
The city of Udon is not that big so don't expect the variety of eateries you get in Bangkok. For foodies, where Udon excels is for those on a budget. Thai street food is famous but let's be frank, downtown Bangkok's street food scene is not what it once was with many famous street vendors / sois known for street food closed as real estate prices soar and the fun police rule that vendors can no longer operate in neighbourhoods they have been fixtures in for generations.
There are enough decent eateries in Udon to keep foodies happy and my favourite Italian restaurant in all of Thailand vis-à-vis quality and authenticity is in Udon Thani. I first ate at Piccolo Roma perhaps 8 or 9 years ago and today it's still the same Italian chef in the kitchen – and he has over 50 years experience! And being Udon, the prices are ridiculously reasonable.
If I had one concern about Udon, it would be that concern you have all over Thailand – making quality farang friends, real friends and not just drinking partners. You don't have to spend long in Udon to see it has its share of white trash.
Yeah, Udon is the centre of farang nightlife in Isaan and Soi Sampantamit is to Udon what Soi Nana is to Bangkok. It really should be renamed Soi Bogan. Think unkempt, unhealthy-looking foreigners doing their very best to reinforce the stereotype that exists in Bangkok expat circles that the typical Isaan farang's brain is pickled by midday.
The farang contingent in Udon is said to number several thousand so there must be plenty of good folks there and probably Soi Sampantamit is the one lane the good guys avoid.
Granted, at peak hour in Udon – which means a couple of hours in the morning and another couple of hours or more in the evening – the traffic jams up, but it clears almost as quickly as it jammed up. Bangkok it is not.
Like anywhere in Isaan, you could get by in Udon on public transport but for convenience it would be preferable to have your own vehicle.
Udon is big enough that it has most of the things a Western expat needs – decent shopping malls including an IT mall, international-style supermarkets, an English language book store, Western-style bars, Western food eateries etc. yet at the same time it is small enough that it's easy to get around and you're never that far from anywhere.
Udon has plenty of gyms and there is a large park in the general downtown area so exercise should never be a problem.
Internet connections are just fine in Udon Thani – as they are in almost all of Thailand – and you can get the same high-speed connections as you can in Bangkok. The city even has its own moderately popular expat forum, UdonMap.com.
Accommodation in Udon is cheap. Apartment rentals run the same as they do in the far-flung suburbs of Bangkok although there are few large, modern high-rises. Houses can be rented for 10,000 – 20,000 baht a month, even less if you are really on a budget.
Udon Thani Airport is within the city limits and there are 5 flights a day on the national carrier to Bangkok; a round trip ticket runs less than 3,000 baht. If you're on a budget you can always use Air Asia which has 3 flights between Udon and Bangkok a day at about half the price of Thai Airways. There are more airlines servicing Udon but these are the big two.
Udon is just 55 km to the city of Nongkhai and the border with Laos.
From there, the Lao capital Vientiane is just a 300 baht / 30-minute cab ride away. I've written about charming Vientiane numerous times and it's close enough to Udon that you can comfortably make a day trip there. It's easier to get from Udon to Vientiane than from one side of Bangkok to the other.
A Nongkhai riverside restaurant on the Mekhong River with Laos opposite.
For anyone who has to make visa runs, it's a trouble-free border (which is something to consider as other border crossings become increasingly difficult for visa runners).
There is an Immigration office in Udon – new Immigration offices are opening up all the time across Thailand. For expats, especially retirees, it means convenience in extending visas or attending to other immigration-related matters like 90-day reporting.
I cannot overemphasize how nice it would be to be so close to the border with Laos and the ease of taking a day-trip to Vientiane. You can enjoy great French food and stock up on great Lao (and Vietnamese) coffee.
One of the disappointing things for me in Bangkok was the fact that everyday products from neighbouring countries were not easy to find and were not readily available. OK, so Beer Lao is available in Bangkok but only a small number of supermarkets and bars actually stock it. And when it comes to finding Vietnamese or Lao coffee in Bangkok, good luck. There is the odd importer around if you hunt hard, but the margins they put on it are insane.
The cynic in me wonders if the Thais know they can't compete on quality with the beer and coffee that comes out of Laos. The Thais have long looked down on Laos and it would be a massive loss of face if superior products from across the border outsold the local product – which is exactly what I expect would happen if trade opened up. Will the Thais ever let Beer Lao become widely available in Thailand?
In Vientiane, I find the best place for a range of Lao and Vietnamese coffee is M Supermarket, on Lane Xang Road, between the Morning Market and the Patuxai Monument. The word supermarket is a misnomer and it really isn't much bigger than a minimart. 500 gram bags of top quality Lao and Vietnamese coffee beans run 50,000 – 55,000 kip, around $7 – $8. Maybe it can be found cheaper elsewhere but that store is central and easy to find.
The Isaan region comprises 20 odd provinces with a total population of well over 20 million people. Each province has its own flavour with subtle differences in food, traditions and even language. Northern Isaan has Lao and Vietnamese influences while southern Isaan shares more in common with Cambodia. Korat fancies itself as the big smoke and some locals look down on Isaan and claim Korat is not part of the region but actually in Central Thailand.
Not all of Isaan is the same and some provinces could not be more different. Think the USA: take New York, Boston and Washington as examples – they're hardly the same, are they? Many of the cities of Isaan are similarly different and having visited almost the entire region and having overnighted in most provinces, I find myself coming back to the idea that if you wanted the quiet life in Thailand and / or were on a budget, Udon Thani has much going for it.
For those who like the quiet life, Udon Thani City strikes me as the best option in all of Isaan and in many ways it stands up well when compared to those places all over Thailand with a resident farang population. The Udon locals are genuinely friendly, truly some of the nicest people in Thailand. The cost of living is low. The infrastructure is good enough and there is nothing like the traffic congestion you get in Bangkok or other major centres like Chiang Mai or Korat. OK, so it gets very hot during the day in Summer but for most of the year it is cooler than Bangkok, especially so at night. Charming Vientiane is less than an hour up the road and if you want the bright lights of the capital, there are 8 flights a day between Udon Thani and Bangkok. Udon Thani might just be Thailand's best kept expat secret.
Where was this photo taken?
Last week's photo was taken outside Cactus Bar in Soi Cowboy, the single shophouse bar which plays classic rock and roll, has Belgian beers at very reasonable prices and which a couple of times a week sees the owner in the kitchen rustling up authentic American food that has quite a following amongst long-term expats (keep an eye on the blackboard outside for details).
FROM STICK'S INBOX (These are emails from readers and what is written here was not written by Stick.) Preference may be given to emails which refer to the previous week's column.
Email of the week: The changing appearance of Thai maidens.
Thailand's ladies have gone about as far off the rails as ever I've seen a group of women go. 1) Braces on an adult woman with otherwise straight teeth? Stupid, annoying and dangerous. 2) Dying beautiful long, black hair an ugly faux blonde colour that never looks natural on an Asian woman anyway? An act of defacement. 3) Blue contact lenses that scream "unnatural and genetically impossible", and make her look like a Japanese comic book character? Creepy! 4) A body full of tattoos that make her look like a longshoreman? What was she thinking?! Add to that a generation of women who have changed their diets and have put another 5 to 10 kilos on their frame and you've gone and spray painted over a masterpiece. Thai women – even working ladies – used to be incredibly pretty and feminine looking. But this group of women chasing some Western beauty concept has largely become gross caricatures of the very women that men go to Thailand to get away from. The irony is heavy. Somehow, I think these women get together and convince themselves that "different is better". What they forget is that, for Western men anyway, they are already different AND better, just the way they were born. May the pendulum begin to swing the opposite direction…and soon.
Demand for braces only makes orthodontists happy.
I have to sound in on the braces question with an overwhelming “turn off”. People who wear the things for real orthodontic purposes realise they create a hygienic nightmare requiring 30 – 40 minutes of brushing, flossing and rinsing sessions 4 or more times a day. If you examine the teeth of the girls wearing them in their photos, they almost always present their teeth with off-colour staining and when they do remove the things they can expect several years of professional cleanings and religious self-brushing to remove the stains they leave. I liken it to a person attaching orthopaedic straightening braces to healthy legs and then employing the use of crutches while walking. It's almost comical but really pathetic. One of my high school classmates went on to become a successful orthodontist here in my hometown. When I told him about the fad there in Thailand his face lit up and he said “You can only hope the trend catches on here in the USA so I can buy a yacht!” And then he went on about the pitfalls.
Cheese graters installed in their mouth.
If there is one thing that is guaranteed to put me off a Thai lady, it is the wearing of braces on her teeth. No matter how attractive she is, or how perfect everything else about her is, as soon as she opens her mouth and flashes a mouth full of steel, I walk away. I am not sure if they are wearing these as they believe it is either attractive or in some way sexy, or even for actual dental reasons, but as soon as I see a lady with a small cheese grater in her mouth, I'm off. This trend seems to have proliferated in the past few years, with many now having fancy coloured versions as well. Whilst I do not like the look of them, I am not sure, or prepared to risk, the possible slicing of my private parts during any frenzied activity.
When fashion goes horribly wrong.
Regarding braces, I absolutely hate them. Although, I am not in the market for a girlfriend (I am married), it is a major turn off. This is one of my pet peeves here. Some women might not have been able to afford them when they were young, but it mostly seems to be a horrible fashion statement. I do notice that a lot of the photos posted lately are of girls with braces.
Tattoos and piercings.
As a person now in his 50's, it is not so much that I dislike tattoos but the fact that in a relatively short time they lose their definition and colour and eventually look like the wearer has been the victim of physical abuse! As for piercing, especially facial ones, I find myself questioning the hygiene of the individual for reasons I have yet to fathom.
Monday's highlight a let-down.
I really enjoy your column and look forward to it every week. It's the highlight of my Monday, opening it up and reading it. More often than not I agree with just about everything you write, and hence it becomes even more enjoyable to read. But this week's column was a disappointment. One thing I'm adamant on is that I do not like this thing you have for ladyboys. The whole thing is sick and twisted! Do I hate ladyboys? Hell, no! I actually feel pity for them as I see them as freaks of nature and the people that frequent these ladyboys I believe have some serious psychological issues. Have you ever found a person who has his shit together frequenting these ladyboys? <Yes, I have – Stick> Have you ever found a ladyboy who comes across as normal who has his / her life in order? <Yes, I have – Stick> They are freaks of nature, and I believe should not be promoted. This is purely my opinion. Yes, you are right that they can be attractive. No doubt about that, but any heterosexual male could see that past the heavy make-up and fake breasts is a guy!
Refusing to promote ladyboys.
You're right about ladyboy bar profitability. True Obsessions and the old Cascade (now Charade) always were at or near the list of top grossers at Nana and all the ladyboy bars there do well, this despite the fact that Nana's managers personally loathe the gender and have ordered a block on promoting them on the plaza's official website.
When farang become an option.
During my time working in Bangkok (1997-2002 and 2009-2012), my workplace employed a large number of upper middle-class, college-educated, English-speaking Thai women, mostly of Thai-Chinese background. In talking with a number of them it appeared pretty straight forward that many of this highly educated crew had no desire to marry a farang. However, I'll qualify that statement; they had no desire to develop relationships with farang while in their 20's. After college, most of them had a Thai fiancé. By their mid-20's if they hadn't married (perhaps (60% of them) they were on what I called the celibacy kick. No fiancé anymore, most dumped due to screwing around, and a dislike of the misogynistic Thai males available. So, it was out with the girls, or lots of temple time, or a fitness kick. Now, the clock was ticking. 28-29 and moving towards 30 with family asking “when are you going to get married” was about the time that either their “standards” or attitudes changed and poof, now a farang husband could be just the ticket! Since our workplace also had any number of unattached Farang males aged in their 30's and 40's, wedding bells were regularly rung.
Girl of the Week
Diana, escort from PureBangkokEscorts
The world's largest adult playground will continue to be known as such after an about-turn by management of Nana Plaza with the decision made to repair the neon on the sign out front rather than replace it with the mooted LED version. The new LED version is said to be "coming soon".
Trade in Nana and Cowboy this week was described as just ok. Pattaya, on the other hand, is said to be dead. Totally dead. There might be lots of Chinese about but they're just there for a gawk. The Caucasian count is very low.
In Soi Cowboy, Lighthouse is one of those bars you don't always hear a lot about – especially compared to the likes of Bacarra and Dollhouse – but Lighthouse has a good lineup, a fun vibe, is doing very well and consistently gets favourable reviews.
Another night spot which seldom gets mentioned in this column is the late-night disco on the 3rd floor of Penny Black, the hotel / short-time hotel in Soi Cowboy right next to Raw Hide. It now has coyote dancers and they aren't ring-ins brought in from one of the chrome pole bars on the soi.
OK, so we know the industry is incredibly dodgy, but sometimes you hear stories that just reinforce how truly dodgy it really is. Which popular late night Sukhumvit venue used to burn the receipts at the end of the month, but now disposes of them daily, destroying them every morning? At sparrow fart, the nongs bring out rubber-banded packs of check-bins and toss them in to a furnace a pack at a time. When they were doing it at the end of each month they'd have boxes and boxes of them and the fire would burn for a long, long time. Now it's all over in minutes.
The escort industry is about to get a shakeup with a new service to launch next month with a simplified service and reduced prices. Most escort service rates start at 5,000 baht for a 2 hour session and rates go up from there. Bangkok 3K Escorts only offers 2-hour liaisons – there is no overnight option – and the all in price is 3,000 baht, significantly less than all existing Bangkok escort services and a price that could persuade fans of the chrome pole bars to take a look.
An article in the Thai newspaper Daily News reported that 2 bars in Bangkok's other gogo bar area Saphan Kwai – which has a predominately Thai male customer base – was raided this week and found to be operating in contravention of regulations. Daily News reports that each of the 2 bars has been ordered shut for 5 years! If this closure order is for real, it could spell problems for the area as there is only a small number of bars in that bar district and Harlem was one of the big ones.
The long awaited English Premier League Football started last weekend and Stumble Inn on Soi Nana is looking to establish itself as the place to watch matches with some great season-long promotions. During all live English Premiership games, Tiger and Chang pints will be promoted as Premiership Promo Pints and will be priced at just 100 baht. If you can predict a match's final score you win a 3-litre Chang beer tower. Stumble Inn's management team is in much disagreement about who will be this year's champions. The owner supports Manchester City, the marketing manager supports Manchester United and the good guys, the venue manager and the general manager, support Liverpool.
The Game Sports Bar & Grill, below the Nana BTS station, has a special on pancakes from 8 AM – 11 AM – all you can eat for 199 baht. Feeding time is limited to one hour.
For naughty boys visiting Sin City who run out of money or Brexiters living in Pattaya who now find themselves broke, there is a cheaper option than the sex tourist express (the Pattaya to Bangkok bus) to get you to the capital. Get your sorry ass over Sukhumvit Road to the Pattaya train station and the once a day, weekdays-only train will get you in to Bangkok for just 31 baht!
Ladyboy bars have a problem many girly bars would love to have – too many staff. The Check-In Residence & Bar, which was formerly in The Tunnel and officially reopened last weekend on Sukhumvit soi 10, is cutting back on staff because not everyone is making a living (and the number of bell-ringers has decreased). So now the Check-In has a waiting list. How many other bars, of any kind, have that complaint?! The girls aren't fired, they just aren't replaced as they leave.
Preparations are well underway for this year's Ladyboy Volleyball competition in Pattaya. The LBWVB competition really is unique. First of all, it is an all-ladyboy competition. Second, all proceeds go to charity. And third, it emphasizes the principles of honesty, integrity and transparency – HIT. This will be the 5th year that the event has been hosted by Areca Lodge in Soi Diana, Pattaya. If the event achieves its target for 2016, it will have donated a total of 3.6 million baht net to charity. Expenses are restricted to direct unavoidable costs which means the hotel, printing and prize money – about 20% of the total. Organizers and helpers do not get any reimbursement and teams participating have to pay their own way. The event has always had three objectives: 1. To have fun. 2. To get the maximum contribution to charity. 3. Provide an event where ladyboys can make and be seen to be making a positive contribution to society. Each nominated charity is asked to specify an infrastructure project so contributors don't just know where the money is going, but actually how it will be used. Organisers make follow-up visits to see that the money has been used the way it was supposed to be which should give confidence to all supporters. Each year the accounts are independently audited. This year's event will take place on Saturday, November 5th and the LBWVB website has all of the info.
Are you living up in Isaan and willing to be interviewed about your life? Colourful readers' submissions writer The Pretender is in the process of forming a film production company and would like to carry out interviews with expats residing in North-East Thailand. On his next trip to Thailand, tentatively set for December / January, The Pretender would like to interview westerners in relationships with a Thai lady or ladyboy and have decided to make Thailand home. He hopes to do the interviews on location in Isaan – high quality interviews for broadcast on YouTube, similar to the short interviews you might have seen in the movie "My Thai Bride". If you're interested in having your story told and are willing to meet The Pretender, drop him an email at : email@example.com
I would love to see some sort of breakdown on the true financial situation of expats residing in Thailand as I get the feeling that many – especially retirees – are not in the strong financial situation that expats used to be. Going back some years, a lot of retirees talked of budgets in the 80,000 – 100,000 baht per month range which I always felt was enough to allow a comfortable life, assuming one was single and had no kids – as was the case with many. These days, I hear more and more of retirees with a monthly budget in the range of 40,000 – 60,000 baht a month – which is not just significantly less in terms of pure numbers, but given that inflation (especially in the farang areas) was running hot for a few years, retirees in Thailand these days must be doing it tougher than those who walked the same path before them.
Popular expat fiction writer and regular contributor of readers' submissions to this site, Steve Rosse's latest work is available on Amazon now, Bangkok Buckaroo.
Quote of the week will mean nothing to most readers, "Lee is the new Darren."
A security guard is shot on Pattaya's Soi LK Metro.
A 19-year old Brit dies swimming at Ko Chang.
A 59-year old Aussie is the latest suicide victim in Pattaya.
British backpackers are kicked and punched by a security guards armed with metal bars on Bangkok's Khao San Road.
Police descend on Soi Cowboy to spread the message to be suspicious of strangers.
The visa-on-arrival fee (which is paid by Indians, Chinese and others, but not Westerners) is to double from September 27.
While Thailand makes it more difficult to stay for any length of time, Cambodia makes it easier.
Ask Sunbelt Asia Legal
Sunbelt Asia's legal department is here to answer your questions relating to legal issues and the law in Thailand. Send any legal questions you may have to me and I will pass them on to Sunbelt Legal and their response will run in a future column. You can contact Sunbelt's legal department directly for all of your legal needs.
Question 1: I am a Brit living in Thailand on a marriage visa and have been doing so for many years. I recently had to renew my visa for another year and was told Immigration officials would come to my home to take photos inside and outside the house. The photos were to be of my wife and I, and a Thai friend of my wife. I had already provided the Immigration office with the usual 6 photos of the house inside and outside on the visa application. The 2 visiting Immigration officials did produce ID when challenged but failed to produce any formal / legal paperwork to justify legal house entry. When I objected to their entry under the invasion of privacy act, they said if I do not conform I may not be given another visa. This created animosity between my wife and I, so I then agreed. One of the photos demanded was a photo of my wife, her friend and I sitting on the bed in the bedroom. Can you give us any update on these new rules that may be applicable to those of us on a marriage visa. Can Sunbelt give any further advice? There was nothing displayed about this in the Immigration office. I did receive a marriage visa for another year.
Sunbelt Legal responds: It is within their rights for Immigration officials to check your home. It is usually done on the first application of an extension of visa based on marriage to a Thai national but it does happen that an officer decides to do so even after some years. There have been reports of Immigration becoming stricter in checking because of fraudulent applicants. According to the Immigration officer we spoke to, it is up to the discretion of the officer and so is on a case by case basis.
Question 2 : I have a legal question an ex-girlfriend asked me. For me, if you have to ask this, you probably should not marry this person if you do not trust them. My question is this: Is there a way to check to see if someone was and / or still is married in Thailand?
Sunbelt Legal responds: The evidence of being single or married can only be provided by the person in question and that is done by obtaining a certificate at the District Office. It is not possible for a third party to access this private information. However, were this person already married and attempted to register a new marriage it would not be allowed as marriages are listed in the government database.
She's as attractive as your average bar lady, right?
Last week's look inside a ladyboy bar was a first for this column. Ladyboys are not flavour of the month for most Stickman readers and I always knew there was a risk running such a feature. A total of two complaints was received about that feature, one of which I ran in the emails section. The ladyboy bar photo essay was a one-off and I have zero plans to expand the coverage of ladyboys / ladyboy bars although with that said, I will report on ladyboy bars from time to time – for the reason that it has an effect on the greater bar industry, as can be clearly seen in Nana Plaza where 7 bars are all-ladyboy and a few more bars have a mix of ladies and ladyboys. If talk of ladyboys turns your stomach, I'm sorry but you'll just have to deal with it.