Chiang Rai—A City for Nature Lovers
The Kok River winds slowly through Chiang Rai, gently supporting wooden long-tail boats. Surrounding it are bursts of luscious vegetation—the natural surroundings are the star of the show in this city. Many of the higher-end restaurants and hotels sit along the river. This is a city that feels spacious due to its wide roads, wooded parks, and low-rise development.
Chiang Rai has resisted overdevelopment. Only an hour’s drive from the border at Myanmar, Chiang Rai seems remote— but many Westerners have been happy to make it their home. There are no real “expat areas,” but quite a few have chosen to live in serviced apartments that include furniture, a kitchenette, weekly room cleaning, and a linen laundry service. This will set you back around $270 a month, and some serviced apartments even have bicycles and swimming pools to use free of charge.
Other expats live in hotels. The living space may be smaller than a serviced apartment, but the advantage is a room in the center of the city from just $242 a month.
If you prefer a more rural environment, plenty of outlying suburbs and villages have houses to rent that are in keeping with Western expectations. A small two-bedroom house with air conditioning and an outdoor kitchen will set you back $305 a month, including a space for gardening.
New condos are also being built in Chiang Rai. These may be small living spaces, but they include contemporary furniture, TV, a gym, and a swimming pool. Most are located just five minutes out of the city, close to large shopping complexes. Rentals begin at $300 a month, including some very attractive views.
Chiang Rai has at least two major shopping centers that supply Western commodities like muesli, peanut butter, and cheese. Apart from local markets where you can buy fresh fruits and vegetables, there are also plenty of 7-Eleven stores that stock milk and bread.
Another wonderful feature of community life in Chiang Rai is a burgeoning expat club. Regular meetings with guest speakers are relevant and popular (see: Chiangraities.com). The Rose Bar, just off Walking Street, is a particular favorite with expats. It serves tasty northern Thai food and cold beer to a bunch of friendly U.S. and Canadian expats.
Chiang Rai also has a selection of hospitals— a mix of missionary, government, and private facilities. These are good for treating less serious health issues. If you need sophisticated advice or treatment, a flight to Bangkok takes just over an hour.
If you need the convenience of a city but don’t want to feel urban claustrophobia, Chiang Rai may be the place for you.
Pai—Natural Beauty With an Alternative Twist
A patchwork of rice paddies in natural swatches of green covers the land. Wooden bridges lend an air of antiquity, and waterfalls provide natural Jacuzzis to cool off in. Pai, in northern Thailand, is quaint and postcard-pretty, with idyllic rolling mountains and valleys.
Pai sits 503 miles north of Bangkok and is only a few hours’ drive from the Myanmar border. Its remoteness means that you must jump a few extra hurdles to get there. A flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai takes a little over an hour and generally costs $33. From there, an air-conditioned bus transfer to Pai will set you back only $6. Be warned, though, the journey is twisty. But once you’ve done it, you can buy the famous t-shirt that reads “I did the 762 curves to get to Pai.”
Increasingly popular with younger expats who are retiring early or working digitally, Pai definitely has an “alternative” flavor to it. Local emphasis is on community and health. The expat Facebook page is titled “Our Pai Family,” and it lists live music events in the evening, drumming circles, lots of yoga, and even a school to learn circus skills.
Life in Pai is hammock-sleepy, unless you love hiking. The national parks have endless opportunities to discover nature in all its majesty. It’s a town with no Western-style shopping malls, but plenty of local markets where you can buy fresh produce for a fraction of what you would pay in any shopping center. A large bag of lettuce, onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, beans, mangos, and a selection of Thai cooking herbs will cost under $10.
The Walking Street Market in Pai, located on Rungsiyanon Road, bursts with handicrafts, lacquerware, handmade clothes, and jewelry. One end of town is popular for delicious food. There you can find local specialties such as curries, noodle dishes, rotis, and fresh juices. If you love being healthy but also succumb to temptation, food like pizzas and hamburgers is also available. The average meal will set you back between $2 and $5.
Pai is popular with expats who are retiring early.
Most expats live just out of town. Wooden bungalows with decks and views of rice paddies rent for as little as $212 a month. Larger, more modern houses with kitchens and balcony views begin at $800 a month. Living in resorts or houses are the only options in Pai; there are no condos here. That simply adds to its charm.
Expats living in Pai need their own form of transport, and many choose to rent motor scooters or cars. A hospital with English-speaking doctors and X-ray equipment is available, so expats can get good care for minor health issues without breaking the budget.
What expats probably appreciate most about life in Pai is that it’s easy to get to know the local peoples and share their customs. It’s an area with lots of hill-tribe peoples whose cultural celebrations differ from those of central Thailand. Living so close, it’s often possible to get an invite.
Krabi—Tropical Beach Life Without the High Price
Flying into Krabi is where the adventure begins. The limestone cliffs that rise up from the aquamarine sea are striking—and popular with climbers. Palm tree farms en masse create spikey patterns of dark green—a reminder that the beachside town of Ao Nang (pronounced Ow Nung) is a balmy tropical paradise.
Expats view Ao Nang as a place reminiscent of Phuket 20 years ago, before the tourist crowds arrived. While it doesn’t have a large network of expats, a trickle of settlers has started to arrive. It’s easy to see why, since affordable rentals are available everywhere. Condos for rent are new, clean, modern, and—the icing on the cake— many come with sea views.
One-bedroom condos with kitchenette, furniture, cable TV, swimming pool, and sea view begin at $360 a month, and two-bedroom condos begin at $550. Your backyard is the resort islands that tourists pay thousands a week to visit.
Krabi’s modern infrastructure includes good-quality roads, fast internet, and large shopping malls that stock Western food items. Markets also abound, and they’re very affordable. The colors and scents of bright, abundant, just-picked produce are a joy in themselves.
As Krabi and Ao Nang are tourist areas, food prices vary. Average meals will cost under $10, if you eat at one of the local restaurants. Street food could cost as little as $1.20. Thai and Western food options are the most common, but a range of curries is up for grabs, as well, along with a wealth of seafood. Ao Nang is a festive, vacation town. If you love the beach and the idea of island resort living, put it on your list.