Thailand is one of the world's best-known tropical paradises and home to many thousands of expatriates enjoying a comfortable, low-cost life amidst the country's virtually endless natural splendor. Thailand has undergone rapid development in recent decades, spurred partly by its tourism industry. Consequently, many favorite tourist and expatriate destinations offer excellent infrastructure and a wide variety of services oriented to expatriate needs. However, while living standards have risen, costs remain low.
Thailand is home to a variety of natural environments stretching from the interior highlands to the sea. Bangkok, the national capital, sits in the heart of this tropical paradise offering a fast-paced, cosmopolitan lifestyle. In the northern Thai highlands, visitors flock to the bustling expatriate center of Chiang Mai and the quieter city of Chiang Rai.
In the south, the seaside resort cities of Phuket and Pattaya are just two of the many popular destinations favored by tourists and expatriates. While these and other cities rank among the most popular in Thailand, many expatriates end up settling in quiet, out-of-the-way beach towns found everywhere along the country's 2,000 miles of shoreline.
Housing costs vary quite a bit depending on where you settle. That said, a $1,000 monthly budget should be enough to live in whichever city interests you the most in Thailand. Bangkok rents rank among the highest in the country. According to Numbeo.com, an international price comparison website, a one-bedroom apartment in the central districts of Bangkok costs about $570 per month on average, which is pretty certain to break your budget. If you are willing to live outside the central districts, however, a similar one-bedroom apartment costs only about $255 per month. A three-bedroom apartment in an outlying neighborhood is about $700 per month, an acceptable price if you plan to share housing costs with a spouse or roommate.
A centrally located one-bedroom apartment in the highland destination of Chiang Mai costs about $310, while a nice three-bedroom unit nearby costs about $740 per month. Outside the city center, prices for one- and three-bedroom apartments are around $190 and $475 per month, respectively. Rental prices are substantially cheaper farther north in Chiang Rai, where you can get a centrally located three-bedroom home for under $340 per month.
In the south, central Pattaya is probably too expensive for most on a $1,000 budget. A one-bedroom apartment in the city center goes for nearly $500 on average, while similar housing in an outlying neighborhood costs just over $300 per month. A three-bedroom condominium outside Pattaya's center costs about $720. Down the Malay Peninsula, the near-shore island of Phuket has centrally located one-bedroom apartments not far from the beach for just under $390, while three-bedroom condos cost around $975 per month. Farther from the beach, one- and three-bedroom apartments are available for around $200 and $515, respectively.
Basic utilities including water, electricity and garbage service cost $50 or $60 per month in most locations. Bangkok utilities are an exception, averaging around $100 per month. International Living magazine suggests that around-the-clock air conditioning adds about $70 to the monthly electricity bill in most parts of the country. Unlimited broadband Internet service is pretty cheap throughout Thailand, averaging under $20 per month. Prepaid cell phone service averages about five cents per minute across the country. Cellphone plans are also available from a number of Thai providers.
Living costs are quite low in Thailand, especially compared to costs in the United States or Europe. Fresh fruits and vegetables, packaged food products and consumer staples including pasta, bread, eggs, and meat are widely available and inexpensive throughout the country. According to Numbeo.com, the national average for a loaf of bread is less than $1, a dozen eggs are about $1.50, rice is less than 50 cents per pound, and boneless, skinless chicken breast is about $1.30 per pound.
Grocery stores in Thai cities overflow with familiar and exotic ingredients to spice up your home-cooked meals. Most expatriates who eat meals primarily at home should be able to dine very well on less than $200 per month. Expatriate reports suggest frugal shoppers can lower this figure by 20% or more while still maintaining a balanced and varied diet. Dining out is also a good option in Thailand, even for those on a budget. A cheap but delicious and hearty meal from a busy local restaurant or a food cart frequented by locals costs less than $1.50. If you feel like splurging, a three-course lunch or dinner at a mid-range neighborhood restaurant costs only about $17 for two people, not including beverages.
Other basic living expenses such as household cleaning products and personal hygiene products are inexpensive in Thailand if you stick to local brands. A budget of $50 to $100 should be plenty for these items. Your costs may be higher if you regularly purchase contact lenses, cosmetics, clothes, and souvenirs.
Public transportation options are available everywhere in Thailand. Bangkok has a public bus system and a mass-transit rail system. The most common transportation options outside of Bangkok include taxis, minibusses, motorcycle taxis and three-wheeled vehicles known as tuk-tuks. Taxis are quite inexpensive on average, starting at $1 plus about 40 cents per mile. Other options are substantially cheaper. Numbeo.com data suggests an average fare of fewer than 60 cents for local transport.
Thailand has an excellent inexpensive health care system and first-rate doctors. While quality care is available throughout most of the country, the bigger cities offer state-of-the-art medical equipment and world-class facilities that attract medical tourists from America and around the world. International Living magazine reports that an examination and consultation with a general practitioner or a specialist typically costs between $15 and $20. A dental filling costs less than $30. Although many expatriates choose to pay for health care out of pocket due to the low cost, affordable health insurance policies are available from Thai and international insurers.
Final Budget: Chiang Mai
To live comfortably in Chiang Mai on $1,000 per month your budget might include $310 for a centrally located one-bedroom apartment; $200 for groceries; $100 for household and personal items; $105 for utilities, Internet and cell phone service; and $40 for transportation. You can spend the remaining $245 on health care, extra air conditioning, dining out, entertainment or travel.