Why Bangkok Is Southeast Asia’s Best City For Expats

When I told my boss a year ago I was packing in my cushty government job to up sticks and fly to Bangkok, embarking on a career about-turn on the way, he was a tad bemused.

“But… why?”

A great question. One I’d been asked by my parents, friends, bartenders, hairdresser and all others I’d bored to death telling about my plans to move to Bangkok and start a new life.

“That is a great question, Rob,” I artfully replied, before proceeding with the same vague answer I’d given to everyone else.

“Well, er, you know. Better standard of living over there. Travelling, I guess. Much sun. Many smile. Food…?”

Fast forwarding a year to now, if someone were to ask me why I moved, the answer would be roughly similar (although hopefully more eloquently delivered after a year of practice).

I love my life in Bangkok and, what’s more, I’m not sure there’s another city in the SEA region that quite compares in terms of the expat experience.

Not everyone agrees; even, bizarrely, expats who have also chosen to live in Bangkok.

‘Bangkok isn’t what it used to be…’ is an oft repeated lament over here, especially among the older expat community.

We published a piece a while ago comparing old and new photos of the city, asking readers how they predicted Bangkok might look in the next 20 years. The number of negative comments regarding the pace of change in their once beloved city was surprising.

While I understand the seductive pangs of nostalgia, and am sure there will come a point where it will no longer hold the pull for me that it currently does, Bangkok – at least at this moment in time – is easily the best city for expats to live in the Southeast Asia region.

Before I inelegantly push my opinions on you, let’s start with a few disclaimers.

Firstly, let’s refine that ambiguous ‘best’ first. What makes someone pack up for a new job or a new life in another country or continent, possibly leaving behind friends and family for the unknown?

What makes a city ‘great’ for expats?

In my mind, it’s the following:

  1. It offers a better lifestyle that you’d live at home
  2. There’s a rich culture to learn and assimilate with, and little room for boredom
  3. But it’s still accessible with plenty of creature comforts that allow you to build a sustainable life for yourself

Automatically, this rules out quite a few Southeast Asian cities.

Singapore, for example. While I know many Western expats having a ball in the Lion City, I’m not sure many of them could say that they have a significantly better lifestyle there than back in the West.

It’s pretty expensive – especially by regional standards – and even though creature comforts are in abundance, the relative youth of the state means that history and culture are still very much in development. If I hear one recurring criticism of Singapore, it’s that it’s pretty sterile.

Bangkok is emphatically not sterile. Admittedly, occasionally to its detriment. But it’s inarguably bursting with character and, er, sometimes dirt.

So Singapore’s at one end of the spectrum. Of course, there’s plenty of other developing Southeast Asian cities with expat potential too: Yangon, Phnom Penh, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Jakarta.

Sure, they’ve got culture, a rich history and – on a Western salary – you can live exceptionally well there, but there’s a few areas where they just have not got their shit together.

Think the traffic in Bangkok is bad? Try Manila and Jakarta. Unadulterated craziness? Phnom Penh. Struggle with the property ownership laws over here? Yangon is not for you. If you think Bangkok is replacing Thai tradition with gleaming shopping malls and office complexes, take a look at the wholesale cultural dismantlement in HCMC right now.

And Kuala Lumpur is just a bit boring.

There’s a reason why so many expats find themselves in Sukhumvit, Silom and even Samut Prakan.

Don’t get me wrong, I know Bangkok is far from perfect.

Some days, there is nothing more frustrating than the inexcusably slow walking pace of almost every customer in Gourmet Market.

Don’t even get me started on the motorbikes freewheeling down the uneven pavements.

And I’ll leave it to more respected publications to contend with the political landscape. And yes, sometimes the city does smell a bit like shit.

But, even so, for all its flaws, I wholeheartedly believe Bangkok is the best Southeast Asian city for an expat to live in.

It offers the perfect compromise between East and West:

  • A low cost of living and renting, even if you accept that the days of dirt cheap rentals are gone
  • Excellent food; almost beyond parallel
  • A friendly and carefree people who generally speak good English
  • One of the few Southeast Asian cities that has preserved its rich history and unique ‘Thainess’ identity while rampantly modernising
  • The relative ease of acquiring home comforts and material goods
  • An established expat community

It’s pretty easy to assimilate here, at the very least superficially. My life over here resembles what it was back in London; it’s just a little bit better. I still have a family, friends, an apartment and a job. But with the advantages of everything else Bangkok has to offer.

What more could an expat want?

What do you think – is Bangkok the top spot for expats in Southeast Asia? If not – where is?


Featured image is by DeeMakMak and used under a Creative Commons licence