Is living in Thailand a bastion of freedom for expats?

Written by Andrew Henderson
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Reporting from: Bangkok, Thailand

The idea of living in Thailand sounds good to a lot of expats. Just look around Bangkok and you’ll see any number of location independent entrepreneurs as well as lawyers, accountants, and all sorts of other professionals from around the western world.

Some may disagree with me, but here are my observations after one month of living in Thailand.

Most of my business successes to date have come from going against the grain. While people had been crowing for well over a decade that “radio is dead”, I built an eight-figure broadcasting business after a year of over-sleeping at a party college. After that, I started or invested in businesses in very un-sexy industries. People laughed, said it was “beneath me”, and that I was wasting my time.

And, each time, my contrarian hunch paid off. We frequently talk about going against the grain of US government propaganda in order to find more freedom and avoid getting screwed by a system on the verge of collapse.

Along those same lines, I’d urge caution before you decide that living in Thailand is the best thing since sliced bread.

As a Type-A entrepreneur, I look for places I can fit in well. China: like a glove. Thailand: like a wet blanket. But, alas, living in Thailand isn’t about “what would Andrew do?” It’s about what you should do.

Let’s examine living in Thailand

The word “Thailand” means “land of the free” – the same term we ironically use to describe Los Estados Unidos. It’s a reference to the fact that Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that has never been colonized by a European power.

However, just as the United States uses it’s Star-Spangled Banner to indoctrinate its own citizens (despite not ranking “most free” in any single survey), Thailand is no bastion of personal or economic freedom either. It’s for that reason I’ve dubbed Thailand “the United States of Asia”.

Living in Thailand can be nice if you don’t mind the slower pace and lack of overall drive, but I wouldn’t do anything more than LIVE there. That means placing little money in Thai banks and preferably having a global business rather than a local storefront.

Cost of Living

Depending on where you’re coming from, Thailand can be quite cheap or not a bargain at all. For Americans outside of the pricey coastal areas, you’ll pay about what you would at home. Nice, one-bedroom apartments along busy Sukhumvit can be had for $600-$1,000 a month (and up). A western-style meal in a mall restaurant will cost $10-15 without drinks.

There’s plenty of nice shopping in Bangkok and the beach cities, but as we’ve discussed before, international goods aren’t any cheaper than you’d find elsewhere. Taxis are extremely cheap, but…

Getting Around

Traffic in Bangkok is horrendous. If Thailand is the United States of Asia, Bangkok is its Los Angeles. Bangkok is spread out into different areas with no specific “downtown”. There is a central business district in Sathorn, but there’s plenty of activity in many other parts of the city as well. That leads to continual traffic jams – even at three in the morning. Unlike many other cities in Southeast Asia, Bangkok does have a Skytrain and an MRT subway system, but they don’t go everywhere.

Personal Freedom

Unlike the United States, Thailand is not a police state. Anything but. While nearby Vietnam has cops that look more militarized, I really don’t see a difference between it and Thailand. Neither country has much of a police state, nor do cops heckle you much. The idea that a “totalitarian state” like Vietnam is far worse than Thailand is silly, in my opinion.

That said, you have to look out for yourself in Thailand. As an advocate of privatized police, I’m all for it. Just don’t come here thinking that anyone will care when five mafioso thugs try to beat you up at a nightclub (as happened to me).

Economic Freedom

In some ways, the Thai economy is somewhat laissez-faire. The government hasn’t stepped in to the overpriced Bangkok property market with the kind of cooling measures seen in Singapore or Hong Kong, jurisdictions with much higher economic freedom rankings.

That said, the government has been outspoken about influencing the value of the Thai baht currency – the one with the King’s face plastered all over it. Legal framework here is quite opaque. Starting an on-the-ground business as a foreigner can be costly, and forget about buying a business on the cheap.

Culture

People in Thailand tend to be very patriotic and nationalistic. It’s not my place to take issue with such patriotism or to say that makes them bad. However, if you’re part of the minority of Americans (or other Western nationalities) who have realized what extreme patriotism does to a country, you understand what I mean. I love to see people embrace what makes them who they are, but not to embrace the government that claims a monopoly on it.

I recently interviewed Harry Dent who told me all about his demographic research and how it impacts his investment outlook. I use another metric to measure living or starting a business in a new country: culture.

For example, I have numerous Chinese friends whose parents are loaded (parents in China happily heap whatever they have onto their children), and these friends could have had a fantastic life at home. Their well-connected families could have helped overcome whatever political issues you’d associate with “communist China”, but they chose to expatriate to find even better opportunities and make their own way.

I don’t see that in Thailand. Thais I spoke to said that they – nor any of their friends – would ever consider leaving Thailand. An American lawyer I met with said that his Thai wife would never hear of moving anywhere else. There’s nothing wrong with being in love with where you live, but when that conflates with happily handing more power over to the government, it gives me reason to pause.

Stereotypes

I suggest that living in Thailand is like living in the “United States of Asia”, not as an insult, but as a warning against following stereotypes. Ever since word got around the world that streets in the US were paved with gold, the country has been a haven for hyperbole.

Similarly, I believe Thailand is overhyped by tourists who saw “The Hangover 2” and came for a few nights of partying. Bangkok is a great place for partying and for medical tourism, but not for everything. (As is the theme of this site, no place is good for everything).

I learned long ago to experience everything in life for myself, rather than asking for someone else’s opinion. When I stayed at five-star hotels, I’d frequently ask the concierge for a restaurant recommendation, only for their suggestion to be mediocre. Meanwhile, I’d find some dive in a back alley with phenomenal food. I realized that living your life on other people’s suggestions is silly.

I’m not telling you that you shouldn’t be living in Thailand. My suggestion is simply to realize that Thailand is a popular expat destination and, as such, has a lot of stories about it which are often over-hyped. As with anywhere else, you’d consider moving, you really need to spend some time on the ground before committing long-term.

And if you think Bangkok is the bargain capital of Asia, you’d best think again. I’d only recommend living in Thailand to a location independent person (or retiree) with over $3,000 a month in after-tax income.

As always, do your homework. No one else can see the world through your dreams and your eyes.

If you are interested in determining what country best fits your business and lifestyle goals, contact us and we can help.

Andrew Henderson
Last updated: Dec 30, 2019 at 4:19PM

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7 Comments

  1. Dannyboy6

    I live in Pattaya, Dirt Cheap, $140.00 a month for Aircon Apt. I also have a daughter in Isaan, 2 hours from Udon, Bungalow Aircon $60.00 a month, so cheap to live, Beautiful Lakes surround me, 1/2 hour from Mekong River, my town is Seka, I would never live anywhere else, Bangkok, too Expensive for someone who lives here. But Good times on Vacation, and Pattaya is Party Central, Niteclubs are Free , bottle service is $36.00 a bottle, u party till 9:00am, 3000 bars and clubs, 200,000 girls, the Place Rocks like Mardi Gras every nite, why would I live in a police state like USA, Thank god , not many Americans have Passports, when I see a Yank, I run…

    • Nomad Capitalist

      Danny, you are right to escape the USA. Thailand works for a number of people, and if it works for you, you should live there. As someone who prefers big cities, I find Bangkok to be underwhelming in a number of ways. I would agree that it’s dirt cheap to live in the provinces of Thailand, where some of the big city nonsense is less prevalent. Also, people in Udon Thani are other provincial areas do seem nicer. I, for one, don’t see a lot of on-the-ground opportunity there outside perhaps agriculture, so it’s not for me. Not a bad place for an internet business owner or retiree, perhaps.

  2. Nomad Capitalist

    How so? My views on Bangkok are still the same: overrated and un-investable.

    • Brian

      What is your favorite big city in southeast Asia?

  3. PeacefulLife

    I’ve been going to Thailand (BKK USM HKT KRB etc) for the past 20 years a few times a year. Thailand WAS a great place 20 years ago and as a tourist now its fine BUT to retire or live there — no thanks. Fine for someone who likes the party life, be treated as a demi-god for their wallets etc. Farang = money = hope for many Thais. Again, lovely people and beautiful country but prices have shot up and simply not a place I would want to retire or live. Will continue to go for a weekly vacation but life in BKK is not easy unless you are an expat and the company is paying for everything.

  4. Karsten Aichholz

    I think your quote for USD 3,000 / month is accurate for anyone staying less than 6 months in Bangkok as you’ll usually have to put up with a few one-time purchase or more expensive accommodation that’s more conveniently located.

    If you’re here longer, you can settle in well into a specific neighborhood and cut that down a bit. I logged my own expenses for a half a year and calculated the average I spent per month: THB 74,031.83 (USD 2064.79)

  5. Umschaltspiel KOP

    This is not a comment about how to do business.

    I think while you talk about using “culture” as an investment metric, you simply failed to investigate why Thais – which is not even a unified “race” like the Japanese or Korean – do not want to leave their country. If you even spent any long period of time in Thailand with attentiveness, you will notice one thing: Thailand is a non-racial society. Despite be ing a country of multi-ethnic makes up – Chinese, Laos, Cambodians, Persians, Sikhs etc. – everyone identifies themselves both nationally and culturally as Thai. If you look elsewhere in South East Asia, or probably around the world, there are racial tensions everywhere. The Chinese ethnics in Malaysia, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar have been through many pogroms in the past and strong anti-Chinese sentiment continues even now throughout SEA. In Thailand, on the other hand, there is no bamboo ceiling against the Chinese. Chinese immigrants have become Prime Ministers, (and even a King) in this country. Thai Muslims or Sikhs can become generals or judges. In fact, in this 90+% Buddhist country, a Sikh man has already become a Chief Supreme Court Justice. Thais never used ethnic terms to identify themselves; they don’t have to. There is not even Islamophobia here, despite regular violence in the South. There are reasons why they cannot imagine being anywhere else.