Thailand Mentor   Your insider  guide to living or retiring in Thailand

Gary Orman in Chiang MaiGary Orman

I’ve just past 50, the official age for obtaining a retirement visa in Thailand. I’m not ready to retire yet, however, as I still want to lead a very active life for many years to come. And I'm a single dad with vibrant young children who also want an exciting, active and challenging life. No sleepy retirement village for us!

I’ve discovered that I can live a comfortable, stress-free life in Chiang Mai and use my home in the country (just 30 minutes outside the city) as my base of operations. It’s amazing that I can run a one-man international business from my home – thanks to the internet, a few freelance staff, a little outsourcing and partners in other countries, many of whom are working from their  homes.

I’m originally from South Africa, but spent nearly all of my professional life in Europe as an independent business consultant, initially for large multinational corporations and then for small businesses and start-ups. Life is easy in the corporate world, and the pay is usually quite good – but it’s very time-consuming, with little time to spare for a personal or family life, and it can often be quite boring.

I had no idea how to run my own business, so I made many mistakes and had many failures along the way. I’ve had a few successes too. I’ve now learned what it takes to develop and manage a small home-based business without investing a fortune in stock or equipment or development costs.

I can show you how to do this also.

I built a good reputation as a consultant with integrity, who could advise on the most cost-effective (not necessarily the ‘cheapest’) strategies that would provide the best returns on investment. I give you all  the facts, not just the positive angles often used by less scrupulous companies just wanting to sell you. I take complaints seriously, and if I think what I offer isn’t the right fit for you or not something you really want then I’d rather not sell to you at all. This way, I get few complaints and have never had a client who suffered from ‘buyer’s remorse’! I also don’t hype and embellish the value of our products and services, because I prefer you to think carefully about every aspect that might be relevant to you; and then when you make your decision to buy from me or engage my services, you will be delighted with the results. Not only that, you will be more inclined to refer me to your friends and colleagues. So, for me, it’s a win-win approach to doing business: satisfied customers, no wasted time.

I’ve lived and worked in many towns and cities in Israel and South Africa, Switzerland, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and, of course, UK. I have three children, the eldest was born in Luxembourg, the others in London, England. Because of my extensive background in business consultancy (which included recruitment and training), I realized that a school education or many formal qualifications are not particularly useful in the business world – so I decided to homeschool my children in the hope that they will develop independent, enquiring minds and an entrepreneurial spirit. Despite all the formal qualifications that I had accumulated in my life, I still knew nothing about business or finance and had to teach myself these fundamental skills from scratch.

Then we moved to Thailand. I first came here 7 years ago, knowing absolutely nothing about Thailand – or even Asia. I thought Thailand was a backwards country ruled as a dictatorship by a strong military-backed monarchy, a bit like Saudi Arabia I thought. I didn’t know it was considered a kind of an international sex spot, but I did have some friends who came here regularly every year and brought back stories of all the women they went out with. Nevertheless, I was still a little afraid to come here, having already grown up in a police state during the Apartheid years in South Africa – but I met a woman who invited me to come work here at her start-up company for 6 months, all expenses paid. So I thought, why not!?

I stayed on another 6 months, before realizing that I wasn’t much use to the company really, and decided to set up my own management training company. I discovered that I liked Thailand enough to want to live here long term.

Bangkok is a massive, metropolitan city. I didn’t always like to be too close to the downtown area where most of the expats lived, because I wanted to get to understand Thai people and culture. So every year, I moved to a different area in Bangkok, each time moving a bit further out. In the process, I got to know the city extremely well. Better than many of the local Thai people in fact.

In Europe, primarily because of my work as an independent consultant, I lived in big cities and small towns and, even occasionally, in small villages – until I realized that although I love the beauty, tranquility and fresh air of living in the country I need the sophistication of a proper-sized city where I can meet and work with people and make friends. Some people like the isolation (and intimacy) of a small village, but even when I had made friends with some of the villagers, I still felt a bit lonely living so far away from a city.

But living in Bangkok was not really what I wanted. Like any big city, it’s relatively expensive. Rental costs are comparable with those in many European and American towns. And it’s tough to make a living if you run a small business in Thailand. Unless you are earning a decent income, usually by working for a large international corporation, you have to live in the outskirts of the city, and spend a lot of time travelling every day. And, like any big city, it’s a good 2-hour trip into town – so you try not to go in too often during the week. But if you earn at least $3,000 a month then you can easily afford to live in town (in a small condo for around $1,000 per month) and enjoy a wonderful life.

My management training business in Bangkok wasn’t so successful, only because companies in Thailand don’t really see the value in management or staff training. So – partly because I needed a quick and easy way to learn Thai, and there weren’t already any decent courses available – I devised a method to learn Thai that you can follow while still leading a busy, hectic life. That business is  moderately successful, but not enough to live well on – primarily because if you come to visit or live in Thailand you can get by well enough by speaking English. This means that learning Thai is not a priority for most of the expats who live here.

Most of the tourists and first-time expats who come to Bangkok take advantage of the relatively cheap and easy sex that’s available. But this wears off fairly quickly (for most people) and one soon realizes that ‘easy women’ is a relatively small, unimportant aspect of Thailand that is blown up out of proportion by the media. (If you look at the statistics, USA has a relatively high per-capita rate for prostitution at 32 per 10,000 people… only a few countries are higher, 44 for Thailand, 49 for Germany, 85 for the Philippines, 100 for Luxembourg and 120 for Venezuela; but for most European countries including UK it's only 10-12; and surprisingly just 5 for France.) If you want to know more about this fascinating subject then read the article, sex and relationships in Thailand [opens in a new window].

I then decided, after 5 years, to find somewhere else in Thailand to live. I had already explored the possibility of moving to some of the neighboring countries: Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos seemed to be still too backward for my liking, Malaysia was a hot, boring Muslim country that might be okay if you enjoy rugged nature and confine yourself to the British Colonial lifestyle of Kuala Lumpur. Singapore was clean, organized and reasonably exciting but expensive, and the Philippines seemed too chaotic. China is too big and dirty. Hong Kong is exciting, but also grimy and about as expensive as Singapore. Japan would have been a good choice and I seriously considered moving there. One can live relatively cheaply in Japan, if you budget carefully and ‘go native’. But the initial move would be very expensive, hardly anyone speaks English so you’d have to learn Japanese as a priority, and for the moment the Yen is too strong and the opportunities for living and working in Japan are quite limited.

I explored other parts of Thailand, with the view to finding a good alternative to Bangkok as place to settle more permanently. I considered Phuket because it’s a touristy, seaside island where nearly everybody speaks English. But it’s an expensive place to live and, unless you love the sea, I found it a bit boring. I do love the sea, having grown up in Cape Town, but because there isn’t any surf along any of the beaches around Thailand, I don’t find the tranquil seaside life here interesting at all.

I rejected Hat Yai in the south as being too out of the way, too small and too disorganized. The other islands like Krabi or Samui seemed like a nice idea, but I had had enough of living in small, isolated villages with no shops and I had no intention of living a lonely life away on an island with dodgy internet connections and expensive flights to the mainland. Maybe this is precisely what you do want, in which case any of these larger islands would be ideal for you. But not for me.

I also looked at Hua Hin. This is a large, pretty seaside town that is developing quite quickly. It’s becoming more and more popular amongst the expats as a viable alternative to Phuket or Pattaya. It’s cheaper (but quickly becoming more expensive) to live in and is within striking distance of Bangkok – 2 hours by bus or car.

The other popular spot is Pattaya, with a reputation for being quite sleazy. This is actually part of a chain of industrial-type towns that sprawl for about 40 miles along the eastern coast of Thailand. The hinterland consists mostly of automobile-related factories. The residential areas and shopping centers are also spread out along the coast, so you really need to have a car if you choose to live here. Pattaya is famous (or infamous) for a small street, called Walking Street, where you can choose from hundreds of inexpensive prostitutes (mostly from poor rural Isaan) parading themselves or sitting demurely in large bars facing the street. This small stretch of road along the beach is what gives Pattaya its sleazy reputation, along with the fact that a small but powerful mafia operates here (probably with close connections with one of the Russian mafia groups). Many tourists get scammed here, usually when renting a jetski or car or motorbike, and neither the police nor local government will intervene (except maybe to assist the con artists). Under no circumstances should you rent a jetski in Pattaya (or anywhere else in Thailand for that matter), no matter how fun it looks!

Many expats indulge in the sex trade (there are common scams to be aware of here also) and then settle with a girl who moves in permanently for a small ‘allowance’ of around $300 pm. That’s usually where the trouble begins, but if you approach the arrangement with an open mind and don’t have expectations about her being studious or intellectual or an exciting conversationalist (and learn to recognize the typical scams) then you can have an enjoyable relationship and live a comfortable life in or near Pattaya.

Despite the problems and sleazy reputation (or perhaps because of it), the Pattaya region – usually known as the Eastern Seaboard - is the most popular choice for expats to live, after Bangkok.

The other places I considered in the eastern part of Thailand were Rayong (a sleepy, but clean and quiet seaside town) and Isaan (the vast agricultural heartland of Thailand, where nothing much happens).

And then I went to visit Chiang Mai in the mountainous region in the north of Thailand. I had left it for last, thinking it to be a small, sluggish town occupied by boring old retired people.

What a pleasant surprise to find that it’s actually a rapidly-growing city with at least four major universities, and plenty of young students, major shopping centers, lively nightclubs and music bars, a cornucopia of good restaurants and coffee shops that weren’t at all expensive – and the old farts I met were actually quite interesting people. Not to mention, there were plenty of ‘ordinary’ people around my own age who are still actively working in a professional capacity of some kind – usually teachers, writers, programmers or consultants, or brokers, or involved in an export trade. There also seemed to be plenty of sporting activities within easy reach from anywhere in or around the city. And there were traffic jams! Little ones – nothing like in Bangkok or London or Paris – but actually a good sign of a bustling, vibrant city. In fact, it's rated as one of the top places in the world to live or retire by Yahoo Finance and HSBC [opens in a new window].

thaimannequinsmThe local people seemed remarkably more open and friendly than Bangkok or Phuket or Pattaya. On the whole, they seemed genuinely more caring and helpful, and remarkably honest. There were exceptions of course but I often met people who put in a little extra effort to ensure that I was satisfied with the service they provided, or extraordinarily generous Thai friends who did favors or gave me things or cooked me dinner that might have been quite expensive relative to their tiny incomes.

One incident was a little extreme, but very amusing: we went to a small Italian restaurant and my girlfriend ordered an iced coffee. The Italian proprietor refused to make one because he said that it would destroy the flavor and aroma of the coffee. He was adamant that coffee must be served hot! We would have to go to a Thai shop if we wanted iced coffee, because no self-respecting Italian would stoop to adding ice and sugar to his coffee!

I went back to Bangkok and informed my family that we were moving to Chiang Mai. We decided to spend a month in Chiang Mai as a family to explore the region and find a place to live. We stayed in a guesthouse in the city and then scoured the area, exploring the main, popular spots of Chiang Mai as well as the hidden backwaters where the local Thai people live.

I discovered many interesting places to live, but in the end we settled on a perfect spot in a small country village. Most other people would probably prefer to live in or very near town. I can one day show and tell you about the places I discovered if you eventually decide to come live here.

We returned to Bangkok, started packing our belongings and moved back to our new home in Chiang Mai a month later.

We’ve been here for two years already and we’re loving it.

And because I have the advantage of being able to speak and read Thai, I am quickly discovering aspects about Thailand and Thai life that makes living here fun and interesting. Because of that advantage, I can help you to get the most out of your life when you eventually decide to move here yourself. And because of my extensive background in business consultancy and entrepreneurship, I can help you design a lifestyle (and maybe a home-based business also) to suit your budget and aspirations.

By the way, I don't usually mention this but in this case it's relevant: I also have a strong background in psychology (a B.Sc. in Psychology with distinction). And although I'm not a practising therapist, I think I have a reasonably good insight into human nature and considerable tolerance for so-called 'deviant' thinking or 'disorders' as well as 'alternative' lifestyles.

This means that you can consult with me candidly on any personal or emotional issue in connection with your new life in Thailand. You can contact me privately, everything we discuss is completely confidential. I deal with romantic relationships, sexual issues (including fantasies and fetishes) as well as money issues (including situations where it impacts on your relationships) - and also health, personal & family problems, addictions and disabilities. Thailand is probably not the place for psychiatric treatments (and I'm not convinced that UK or USA is either!!) but I can show you how to obtain cheaper medication (such as Olanzapine). As I'm not a therapist, I won't offer counselling or treatment, but I can refer you to therapists, hypnotists or organizations that can help you.