The laid-back lifestyle, sunny skies and cheap prices of Thailand has made the place a very attractive destination to retire. In fact, it was named one of the top 10 best countries in the world to spend your golden years!
If you’ve got one eye on jetting off to the Land of Smiles then your first pit stop is to think about where you’d like to go. Thailand is a big and beautiful country with everything from jungles to mountains to beaches to concrete. There really is something for everyone.
In this article, I’m going to go through each of the popular places that people choose to settle down here and explain the pros and cons for every type of retiree.
Typical monthly budget: $1500
The capital of Thailand, affectionately nicknamed the Big Mango, has a lot to offer potential residents. All the trappings of big city life are present, although with a certain Asian twist. Expect to find excellent restaurants for Japanese, Korean or Thai cuisine, whereas quality Western food will be harder to come by. You’ll find humungous shopping malls and cinemas complemented by cute night markets and one-man-band street food carts too.
Given Bangkok’s size and density, prices are higher for almost everything with property being particularly costly. House or apartment prices approach Western levels in the central areas. The further out you go, the more you can find a place for as little as $300 a month or less and as a retiree, you do have the option of living anywhere. The cost of living is very cheap compared to Western countries, especially if you can avoid imported products.
Other similar options: If you like big city living then this is it, I’m afraid. Bangkok is an extreme example of a primate city with its population estimated to be between 8 and 14 million. The next biggest place is around 250,000 people.
Typical monthly budget: $1000
The north of Thailand is an attractive place for tourists, expats and retirees alike as temperatures are significantly cooler than the rest of the country. The weather is still sunny and hot and it still follows the tropical seasons of hot, wet then cool, but temperatures are 3-8ºC cooler because of the higher altitudes and mountainous terrain.
I personally find this part of the country beautiful and my favorite place is Chiang Rai. A city that’s small enough to not feel suffocating but big enough to have plenty going on. And if you’re keen on riding a motorbike around then you’re in one of the best spots in the world.
Bear in mind pollution is at its worst here. The burning of crops that happens across South East Asia in the early part of the year covers the skies with a dense haze. You can mitigate the problems with using an air purifier indoors and wearing masks when you’re outside but it’s still deeply unpleasant.
Similar options: Chiang Mai is a similar but larger city in the same region with a much larger expat (and tourist) population, for better or worse. The noise and traffic puts me off, but you might like it.
Typical monthly budget: $1000
Pattaya is (perhaps not so) endearingly thought of as Thailand’s sin city. The place lies on the coast near Bangkok and is known for its many gogo bars and women of the night. While Pattaya has a lot to offer, the main reason you would want to retire here is if you’re interested in pursuing a lifestyle which involves exchanging cash for sexual favours.
Pattaya has a large expat population of which a sizable part are older retirees. It is also a major tourist destination, with the clientele and infrastructure to match. When I was there, the writing at most restaurants was in Thai, English and in Russian. You can make of that what you will.
The main strip of Pattaya is a long beach. Nice enough, but hardly beautiful like the beaches you find on the islands here. You can take a boat trip to the island of Koh Larn which is 20-30 minutes from the pier at Pattaya. The beaches on this island are lovely although they get very crowded with day-trippers.
The amenities are plentiful and you’ll find an array of Western shops, restaurants and malls that is probably only second to Bangkok in terms of the choice on offer.
Similar options: There’s nowhere quite like Pattaya, but if you’re looking for the opportunity to give women (or men!) money for sex then you’ll find it across the country. There’s just a whole lot more of it in Pattaya.
Typical monthly budget: $1000
The city of Hua Hin sits on the west coast of the gulf of Thailand, across the sea from Pattaya and a two-hour car journey from Bangkok.
This is a small-ish town with long beaches where you’ll see a variety of watersports. It has a wonderful night market in the centre of town and is filled with Western restaurants of all kinds. Like Pattaya, this place is notable for its Western retiree population and it’s a common sight to see older (white) couples walking the streets.
Hua Hin is close enough to Bangkok to make all the conveniences there accessible. The short two or three-hour journey does mean the little town also hosts a large number of tourists. The massive Hilton and Marriot hotels perhaps being a clue.
Other similar options: This area of Thailand (known as Prachuap Khiri Khan) has a number of similar towns where you can experience beaches and slow life Thai living while still being well connected to Bangkok and its airports and hospitals and other amenities. Cha-Am is one example which attracts many Thai tourists, although there are many more. The more local you go though, the more you might need to speak some Thai.
The Islands Of Thailand
Typical monthly budget: $1200
The prospect of white beaches and blue seas on your doorstep is the dream of many and Thailand has myriad gorgeous islands you can live on. The appeal of this kind of lifestyle is obvious, so let me walk through some of the downsides.
The Thai islands are tourist destinations. You’ll be surrounded by tourists if you live here and given the size of the place it’ll be hard to get away from them. Any expats you do meet and befriend are likely to be there on a temporary basis.
You will also struggle to find modern conveniences like hospitals, airports, grocery stores or police stations. Even getting a loaf of bread might be difficult. You’ll need an ability to adapt your diet easily, although if you like rice and seafood then you’re onto a winner.
The things you can buy often have a surcharge on them as well. The logistics of transporting across water are not simple and it’s possible the island you choose doesn’t even have a 7/11. Add on a tourist tax on as well and you’ll find it’s not the cheapest place to live.
If I’ve not put you off then you’re in a position to start looking at places you could retire. You’ll find that actually, there is a big difference between the largest island in Thailand which is its own province (Phuket) and many of the smallest habitable islands where you’ll struggle to buy an apple. I’ve summarised the options below.
Phuket – The largest island in Thailand (around 500 sq km) is the most realistic to retire to because of its size and population. You can enjoy all the conveniences you would expect of any other province or city like good grocery stores, hospitals, airport and so on. Easy to get away from the tourist areas, too.
Koh Samui, Koh Chang, Koh Phang-Ngan – Next up we have a few of the larger “small” islands. These places are tourist central but they’re big enough that you can get away from it all yet small enough that natural beauty is everywhere and you’re spoilt for choice for beaches. Do watch out for access to things like grocery stores, hospitals and the like. Samui does have an airport with links to Bangkok, mind.
Anywhere else – Thailand is home to over 100 islands, almost all of them inhabited to some degree. The beach in paradise way of life is available for those who go looking. Check these places out (a lot). Talk to locals and expats who already live there before you even think about making the move. Among the issues you might encounter are unreliable plumbing, internet or other amenities, no access to an ATM, difficulty making friends and a lack of diversity in the diet.
Typical monthly budget: $800
The North East of Thailand, known as Isaan, is another popular retirement spot. The region has more in common with Lao (the country) than Thailand and is a well-populated but poor region with vast swathes of rice farms. Isaan contributes 1/3 of Thailand’s population while only 10% of its GDP.
Isaan is cheap, even by the standards of Thailand. A two-bedroom house can cost as little as 5000฿ (£120) per month. Your money will go further here than anywhere else in the country.
There are few other expats or retirees who live here. Those that do tend to be located in the larger cities of Isaan. Actually, the main reason people move here (and the reason expats don’t get lonely) is that a gentleman has found a girlfriend or wife from the area and can use even a meagre pension to support a respectable quality of life.
Options: I don’t know that much about Isaan myself. It’s a big place with many provinces and cities. If you like the idea of moving there then I suggest doing your own research. It would be worth starting with some of the larger cities of Buriram, Khon Khaen, Nakhon Ratchasima or Loei.
Why is Thailand a good place to retire?
Thailand marries a low cost of living with a modern lifestyle, all with easy access to Western conveniences. Who wouldn’t want to retire in a place like that? Throw in a hassle-free retirement visa and you’ve got a country which welcomes thousands of foreign retirees each year.
The minimum income from a pension to be eligible for a retirement visa is 65000฿ ($2000) a month but you can also qualify simply by having 800,000฿ ($24000) in a bank account. This amount is a generous sum to live on and usually affords a much better lifestyle than retirees would expect in their home country.
(It’s rumoured that some retirees choose to top up their retirement fund with a little cash on the side from work as an English teacher. That’s a legal grey area that I’ll leave to other websites, though.)
Cheaper countries than Thailand exist, sure. But Thailand also throws in sunny year-round weather, low crime, friendly people, superb food and a whole lot more that really makes it stand out as a place to enjoy the remaining years of one’s life.
What are some potential downsides?
Let me issue a warning before you open a new tab to check Thai Airways departures for tomorrow morning. This country is not for everyone.
First of all, you absolutely should spend some time here before uprooting your life across the globe. There’s no teacher like experience and even a couple of months travelling here will be infinitely more helpful than some internet article you read.
Here are a few other things that I think might put people off.
Weather. The warm weather and sunny skies of Thailand seem like the perfect antidote to the cold and dark winters of northern Europe. In reality, it’s hardly the perfect climates. The issue is that it’s too hot. During the afternoon, it can get baking hot which is combined with high humidity which means you feel like you’re always sweating. It’s simply not pleasant to be outside during this period of the day.
Friends. Friends are an important part of retirement, for many. If you’re lucky then you’ll be retiring with a wonderful man or woman to keep you company. Even if not, it’s good to have companionship outside of a relationship. Depending on where you go, it can be difficult to make friends. Unless you are already fluent in Thai, I would forget the possibility of making Thai friends. There will be other retirees to meet, mostly in the larger urban areas like Bangkok or the common retirement spots like Hua Hin.
Distance from loved ones. You’re reading an English language blog, so a move out to Thailand is likely to put great distance between you and those close to you. While flights to Europe, America and Australia are frequent, they are long, troublesome and expensive. The reality is that people who live here only visit home once every two to three years, with a few making the effort to go once or twice a year.
Other things worth knowing
English language. English in Thailand is omnipresent in urban areas. Everyone speaks it a little, everyone learns it at school and everything is written in English as well as Thai. Despite this, it’s not easy to get around and most conversations you have will be stilted at best. Get away from the main cities and it gets even worse. For some, this is an opportunity to be immersed in a new culture and learn a new language. For others, it’s a massive ballache.
Health services. You will need health insurance if you want to live in Thailand and it goes up with age. It’s cheap compared to USA/Canada with its privatised healthcare but it might seem extortionate if you’re used to not paying for doctors visits and the like (UK). Overall, health infrastructure and services are of a good standard with the best hospitals being in Bangkok and the larger cities.
Cultural differences. Thai people have very different cultural norms to what Western expats are accustomed too. It’s a society where ‘face’ is very important, conflict is usually resolved without explicit emotion and people can be very indirect about the truth. These differences make some people intensely bitter and end up hating the country and their lives here. Personally, I prefer it.
How did I work out the budget?
The budget section I included for each location is intended to give you an idea of the minimum amount a person would spend in an average month.
It centres somewhat around my own tastes – which lean towards the frugal side of things – so it’s a pretty spartan lifestyle. It also does not budget for big one-off purchases like hospital trips, holidays abroad, house deposits and that kind of thing. If nothing else, it gives you a way to quickly compare between places.
If you’d like to get an idea of average people’s cost of living in Thailand, let me recommend this fantastic page from Ajarn.com. You can see hundreds of reports from people outlining what they spend.
Another great resource is numbeo.com which is crowdsourced cost of living data for places all around the world. Here’s a link to the webpage for Chiang Rai, updated as of last month (October 2019).
How much do I need to retire in Thailand?
The best information I can find on what the current retirement visa calls for is this webpage.
“To get a retirement visa in Thailand, you need either a monthly income of at least 65,000 baht (about $2,000) or a bank account balance of at least 800,000 baht (about $25,000) – or some combination of income and money in the bank that equals 800,000 baht.”
Bear in mind this is the minimum amount to obtain the visa. I don’t think 800,000 baht is going to last anyone that long in Thailand. Minimum wage in Thailand is around 6,000 baht per month but you can forget pulling off that kind of budget. The thriftiest of expats can probably make a 20,000 baht a month budget work, given a willingness to live in a box room, not drink alcohol, eat only Thai food. That kinda thing.
If you’re willing to bend the rules and work under your visa AND you don’t mind being an English teacher, there are plenty of schools that will hire you. You’ve got a much better chance if you’re a native speaker of English but age discrimination is a real thing here. Ideally, I’d say you shouldn’t pursue this option.