Thailand is a dream destination, and many people fantasize about moving to Thailand to live the expat life.
But is the dream a reality? Can a life in the Land of Smiles really be that good?
It can be.
Thailand is more than capable of living up to expectation, and often of surpassing it.
But it doesn’t all start and end with the capital city of Bangkok. Thailand is festooned with beautiful cities throughout the length and breadth of the country, all of which have their own unique charm and effervescent lifestyle to offer enthusiastic expats.
Here is the lowdown on the brightest and best…
The Best Cities in Thailand for Expats
Move to Bangkok
Bangkok is abuzz 24 hours a day, and it’s no wonder that expats flock to its diverse delights and decide to settle here. Bangkok is one of the more affordable east Asian capitals to live in, and even city centre rental apartments are within financial reach for most foreigners (a small studio apartment in the centre costs 5,000 THB upwards).
Along with the low cost of healthcare here, property prices are one of the main reasons to come to Bangkok and stay.
The weather here is scorching for most of the year, although it does have its rainy season (even then temperatures are still comfortably warm).
The cuisine is undeniably delicious, and the cosmopolitan nature of the city lends itself not only to exquisite Thai food, but also world class restaurants offering pretty much every cuisine you can imagine – from Japanese to Italian and American among many others.
It’s easy to eat out well here, as well as very cheaply relative to the west. Dinner for two in one of the expat hotspots costs around 1,500 THB — much, much less if you fancy dining like a local!
A sound transport infrastructure make Bangkok a city easy to explore and get to where you want quickly, easily and cheaply. It also provides excellent transport links to elsewhere in the country when you feel like escaping the delightful craziness of the city.
Thai people are lovely, and in Bangkok there is no difficulty getting by even if you don’t speak the language.
When it comes to mingling with other expats, Bangkok has a well established expat community, and there’s no shortage of social clubs and activities for all kinds of different interests.
Most expats choose to live in the ultra trendy Sukhumvit area, where between the glossy, vertiginous skyscrapers nestles an incredible nightlife scene, including some of Bangkok’s infamous red light districts.
Move to Chiang Mai
As in Bangkok there is a thriving expat scene in Chiang Mai.
There’s a well established network of expat services, schools, shops and social circles to ease you into life here. The city itself, however, is vastly different. The northern capital of Chiang Mai is quaint and charming, with a blissed out ambience.
It’s a place to wander, and to explore the glorious temples and historic sites. To have luxurious massages at a ridiculous price, and to soak up the authentically Thai culture.
The climate here is milder than in Bangkok, but is arguably more agreeable.
The city is surrounded by green hills and mountains which abound with wildlife, and where you can find traditional tribal villages. Transport here is very cheap, and a delightfully hair raising ride on a tuk tuk won’t set you back big bucks.
In fact Chiang Mai is one of the cheapest cities in east Asia, with rental costs in the city having an average of around 12,000 THB. Should you wish to buy a property, a decent small apartment will cost you upwards of 700,000 THB.
Eating out is seriously cheap, with Thai food being the most affordable option. Chiang Mai may not be as multicultural as Bangkok, but it nevertheless offers a bounty of fabulous restaurants.
The nightlife is pretty good here too — although not many places stay open into the wee hours. Drinks are generally cheap, but imported drinks cost more — it’s best to stick to the local brew.
Move to Pattaya
First things first — Pattaya has a bit of a shady reputation as a hotbed of prostitution.
While it’s true that Pattaya’s adult entertainment industry and party atmosphere plays an important role in attracting tourists and expats, it has in recent years undergone a bit of a transformation, and now has a wealth of other more salubrious attractions too.
To date around 40,000 expats have made this vibrant coastal town their base, and it has a well established infrastructure catering to Westerners, so expats can expect a wide social circle.
Situated just 150 kilometers south of Bangkok on the east coast, Pattaya has some appealing sandy beaches ideal for lazing the day away. For the kids there are water parks offering thrills and spills, or more adventurous types — whatever their age — can have a blast on a jet ski, go scuba diving, or trundle through the jungle on the back of an elephant.
And yes, the nightlife here is a thrilling experience. There are countless bars and restaurants — plenty of which feature sexy shows, plus titillating go-go dancers and ladyboys. The party goes on until way into the night every night, but there are also some great restaurants and more family friendly entertainments.
So how much does it cost to live what may seem to many a very decadent lifestyle?
Prices here are cheaper than Bangkok, but a little more expensive than Chiang Mai. Food, transport, entertainment, utilities and healthcare are all very reasonably priced, and it’s possible to live fairly comfortably on just 20,000 THB per month.
Food and drink are cheap, and accommodation in a swanky 1 bedroom city center apartment will set you back around 20,000 THB per month.
Move to Phuket
For many, Phuket is the ultimate dream come true. Appropriately named the ‘Pearl of the Andaman Sea’, this prosperous island attracts expats in large numbers.
Heavenly white sand beaches, stunning views and tranquil hidden valleys make up the landscape – yet with a solid infrastructure, excellent hospitals and stylish accommodations, life in this picturesque location is far from remote.
Phuket is one of the richest Thai provinces, which sets the prices here a little higher than other similar locations in the country.
Relative to the west however it is still seriously affordable, and with even a modest budget of about 40,000 THB a month you can still live most comfortably here.
20,000 THB a month will get you a luxurious seaside apartment, and to balance the cost it’s possible to dine out cheaply at noodle shops and street stalls, or more elegantly in one of Phuket’s many gourmet restaurants which dish up every type of cuisine imaginable.
Gastronomy isn’t the only entertainment on offer here, and aside from exploring the lush tropical landscape there are arts and culture on offer in the cities, as well as plenty of other activities such as deep-sea diving, luxury shopping, and lavish spas for the ultimate in pampering.
The expat community here is made up of people from all over the world. Most expats tend to avoid living in the tourist hotspots of Patong, Karon and Kata, preferring to cluster around the northern hillsides and the beaches. There are many active expat groups which organize get togethers and activities.
Move to Koh Samui
Slightly smaller than the island of Phuket, Koh Samui is situated off Thailand’s east coast (Phuket is on the western side of Thailand’s southern land mass).
There’s every style of living here, from the super luxe, to bohemian low cost living. The expat community here is fast growing, thanks to the balmy tropical climate, the natural beauty of the island, the easy going way of life, and the affordability of living here.
The burgeoning tourist industry has demanded rapid change and development to Koh Samui island, but it still remains a beautiful place with forests, temples and waterfalls in addition to its blissful beaches.
The upside of this development is the richness of diversity that it has brought with it, giving this island an even more wide ranging appeal for expats.
There is a wealth of choice for wining and dining no matter what your tastes, from inexpensive Thai food to western classics like steak and burgers. There are many western style pubs and clubs here which cater to the expat community and new westernized shopping and entertainment centers are continually popping up.
Prices here are more expensive than on the nearby mainland, but with a budget of 30,000 THB per month it’s possible to rent a decent small house or apartment, eat well, and enjoy plenty of entertainments including animal shows, boat trips and jungle tours, bungee jumping and quad biking.
There’s some fantastic nightlife here too, with bars and clubs on the beaches of Chaweng and Lamai being the hottest places to hang out until late into the night.
Koh Samui has its own rather beautiful international airport, with flights to and from Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Hong Kong and Singapore amongst others. Samui is also the gateway to several smaller and more remote islands, such as the serenely stunning Koh Tao with incredible diving opportunities, and chilled out Koh Phangan with a truly hippy vibe.
Move to Chiang Rai
This small, enchanting city is situated near the borders of Laos and Myanmar in Northern Thailand. Chiang Rai is one of the least expensive cities in Thailand.
It is particularly famous for its striking white temple Wat Rong Khun designed by contemporary Thai visual artist Chalermchai Kositpipat. The climate is more temperate than further south, but summer temperatures still get into the 30s, and winters are a pleasantly warm 22 degrees Celcius on average. Chiang Rai has a very relaxed, laid back vibe and rather bohemian ambiance, and it still remains relatively un-touristy in comparison to other parts of Thailand.
Some of the best hospitals in the country are located here, and at only 500 THB for a thorough check up, treatment is affordable.
It’s possible to rent a decent one or two bedroom apartment here for a little as 2000 – 3000 THB per month. Public transport isn’t great in Chiang Rai, and you’d be better off buying or renting a moped to get around. Having your own means of getting around is also handy for exploring the impressive collection of temples, art, language, cuisine and music on offer in and around the city.
There are several expat clubs in the city which hold regular gatherings and organize group events, so there’s plenty of opportunity to make new friends and mingle with other expats.
Nightlife is thin on the ground, so if you’re looking to party all night Chiang Rai probably isn’t for you. There’s also no huge focus on shopping, so choices are limited, but there are some good markets.
What the expat community here focuses on is chilling out and delighting in the gorgeous scenery and Lanna architecture.
Food and drink are easily affordable here, and Chiang Rai’s culinary scene features a good mix of local and international restaurants – a dinner for two costs around 600 THB.
What’s your pick for the best city in Thailand for expats?