Known for its white sand beaches, crystal clear water and beautiful climate, plus its ruins of ancient kingdoms, many present-day temples and, of course, Thai cuisine, Thailand offers a mix of everything from vibrant cosmopolitan cities to quiet waterside towns. Over the years, Thailand has turned into a popular destination for expats in search of a change of scenery, new cultural experiences, affordable health care, possible tax benefits and a lower cost of living during retirement.
Here, we take a look at seven of the top cities in Thailand for retirees. (You may also be interested in Plan Your Retirement Abroad and Things To Consider Before Retiring Abroad.) Unfortunately, two of these cities – Hua Hin and Phuket – were among the locations hit by multiple bombing incidents on August 11 and 12, 2016. This is not a reason to avoid them, but it is a reason to be even more careful in where and how you move around at this time. For more on this, see "The Bottom Line," below.
Peaceful Retirement: Krabi Town
Steven LePoidevin, InternationalLiving.com Thailand Correspondent, names Krabi Town – a riverside town that features a number of cozy cafes and inexpensive restaurants – as Thailand’s best city if you’re looking for a peaceful retirement. Krabi is a small town on the west coast of southern Thailand, situated along the banks of the Krabi River where it empties into Phang Nga Bay. According to LePoidevin, Krabi boasts not only an affordable cost of living, but a low crime rate as well. The international community is like a small town: With just 2000 to 3000 westerners in residence during the high season (November to April), it can soon seem that everyone knows everyone, but at the same time, according to the local blog Yourkrabi.com, it can be "cliquey," and there's no organized expat social club, just some favorite local gathering spots.
There are plenty of ways to enjoy the area’s natural beauty. “Nearby hot springs, sea caves, coral reefs and exotic marine life, and limestone cliffs that draw rock climbing enthusiasts from around the world are a few of the attractions,” says LePoidevin. “Accessible national parks include the island paradises of Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta. And beach life is never too far away, with Ao Nang, a seaside strip of guesthouses, hotels, bars, restaurants, and Noppharat Thara, whose quiet, shady beach is part of the national park that includes the Phi Phi Islands.”
Adventurous Retirement: Chiang Mai
When asked which city is the best for an adventurous retirement, LePoidevin says, “Any place in the country! Life as an expat is always an adventure.” True, living abroad is an adventure in itself, and each day can bring something new – and push the limits of your comfort zone. After all, you’ll be experiencing a new culture, a new language, new customs, new foods – maybe new everything. As far as adventure activities – beyond the daily adventure inherent to living abroad – northern Thailand’s mountainous terrain is a natural setting for everything from whitewater rafting and kayaking, to mountain biking and jungle trekking.
The city of Chiang Mai, considered the cultural heart of northern Thailand, is often associated with adventure because of its proximity to these outdoor pursuits. Located about 400 miles north of Bangkok, Chiang Mai sits among the country’s highest mountains and made the list in TripAdvisor’s “25 Best Destinations in the World” in 2012. And when you feel like a city fix, Chiang Mai offers museums, nightlife, international restaurants, shopping, and more than 300 Buddhist temples. The international community is large, with about 40,000 people from around the globe living here, according to the detailed online guide, One Stop Chiang Mai,
Strong Expat Communities: Both Chiang Mai and Hua Hin
Chiang Mai is home to a large number of long-term retired expats, both singles and couples. “Chiang Mai has a very active expats club that meets monthly, dozens of expat clubs and interest groups that meet weekly, and frequent expat breakfast get-togethers,” says LePoidevin. Since Thailand is a popular retirement destination, however, Chiang Mai is not the only city with a strong expat community. “Another popular city for expats is Hua Hin, as well as the smaller towns to the north and south of this well-known beachside resort,” explains LePoidevin.
Hua Hin was once a quiet fishing village, but after Thailand’s royal family built a vacation home on the shore in the 1920s, it attracted nearby Bangkok’s elite, who in turn established a community of vacation homes along Hua Hin’s wide, sandy beaches. Today, Hua Hin has a well-developed expat community, who enjoy the area’s small-town feel, flourishing restaurant scene, sea breezes and reasonable cost of living.
Cosmopolitan Retirement: Bangkok
Bangkok is the city of choice if you’re looking for a cosmopolitan retirement, according to LePoidevin. With a population of more than 9 million, it is one of the largest cities in the world and home to temples and palaces, canals (Bangkok has been called the "Venice of the East"), an exciting nightlife and ample shopping. “Anything you want in a big city can be found here: modern shopping malls, a large number of entertainment venues for every taste, numerous art museums – both contemporary and classic art – and a huge variety of restaurants,” says LePoidevin.
The city includes a solid infrastructure as well. “Bangkok has excellent hospitals and medical care, an efficient transit system and many public parks,” says LePoidevin. The city is also home to a large expat community, plus a number of English bookstores. It's the capital city, with some of the political tensions as well as the glamor, and given its population of 9 million, you won't be surprised that the car traffic can be a nightmare, according to ExpatArrivals.com. '
Low-Cost Retirement: Chiang Rai
"If Thailand is one of the cheapest countries on Earth, Chiang Rai would be one of the cheapest cities," says LePoidevin. (Expatistan's collaborative cost of living guide – tracked in Baht – is fun to browse.) Chiang Rai is located about 100 miles from Chiang Mai, in Thailand’s northernmost province, and is surrounded by mountains, rice fields, forests, rivers and beautiful waterfalls. Although expats should expect a rural lifestyle, Chiang Rai does offer the basic amenities – including restaurants, a hospital and a shopping mall.
“As Chiang Mai becomes more expensive and developed, many expats are seeking the smaller city of Chiang Rai for a more peaceful and cheaper retirement,” says LePoidevin. “Chiang Rai is still hot – but it is the coolest city in the country. It has very inexpensive houses, condos and apartments, good food and friendly people.” And LePoidevin points out another perk: Chiang Rai has very few scams such as you would find in the largest tourist centers.
Beach Living: Phuket and Rayong
Or you might just want to be sure that you're not far from Thailand's famed beaches. Phuket, for example – Thailand’s largest island – offers the best of both worlds: peaceful days spent on white-sand beaches and action-packed nights in any of the area’s nightclubs. Phuket is known for its food, and you can enjoy some of the best Thai-style seafood in the country, as well as a variety of international restaurants, including Indian, Italian and sushi.
Rayong is an up-and-coming expat destination. Located along Thailand’s Eastern Gulf Coast, Rayong boasts some of the most peaceful beach living in the country. Though rural, an easy 2.5 hour drive gets you to Bangkok. Because of Rayong’s natural beauty – and its proximity to the country’s largest city – new condo developments and hotels have begun to pop up along the coast to serve resident tourists and expats alike.
The Bottom Line
Thailand’s natural beauty, endless beaches, and lower cost of living make it a prime retirement destination. Thriving communities of expats can be found throughout Thailand, and retirees can choose from vibrant, cosmopolitan cities like Bangkok, or quiet riverside towns, such as Krabi.
Note: The cities affected by the multiple bombing incidents in August 2016 included Hua Hin, Phang Nga, Trang, Surat Thani, and Phuket. Thai authorities reported at least four deaths and 37 injuries. Click here for the U.S. Embassy and Consulate's warning. Its advice for residents and travelers: "Regularly monitor the State Department’s website, where you can find current Travel Warnings, Travel Alerts, and the Worldwide Caution. Read the Country Specific Information for Thailand."
For further in-country help: "The American Citizen Services Unit of the U.S. Embassy is located at 95 Wireless Road in Bangkok, and can be reached by calling +66-2-205-4049, or by e-mailing email@example.com. The Embassy’s after-hours emergency telephone number is +66-2-205-4000. You can also follow us on Twitter @acsbkk."
Since October 7, 2014, there have been no Travel Alerts or Warnings issued specifically for Thailand, though that could change, of course. But, in U.S. Department of State in March 2016 updated its Worldwide Caution to provide information on the continuing threat of terrorist actions and violence against U.S. citizens who travel or live abroad. The caution, which pertains to travel in Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, Africa, South Asia, Central Asia, East Asia and the Pacific, states that, “Recent terrorist attacks, whether by those affiliated with terrorist entities, copycats, or individual perpetrators, serve as a reminder that U.S. citizens need to maintain a high level of vigilance and take appropriate steps to increase their security awareness.”
U.S. citizens traveling or residing abroad are encouraged to enroll in the Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which provides security updates and makes it easier for the nearest U.S. embassy or consulate to contact you and/or your family in case of an emergency. (For related reading, see "Live in Thailand on $1,000 a Month")