It Takes Hard Work To Make A Good Expat Life In Thailand

My wife and I have been living in Thailand for almost four years. We teach at a university in Bangkok which provides us with free housing and four months of vacation a year, and only requires us to work 15 hours a week, during the eight months of the year that we’re required to work, that is.

With our four months of vacation over the past four years, we’ve traveled extensively throughout Asia and the rest of the world, not to mention we’ve also taken several trips back to our home country (the USA) during that time and visited countless places in Thailand.

Suffice to say, we’ve led a dream life for the past few years.

In fact, whenever anyone hears ‘our story’, the most common reaction we hear is, “Wow. You guys are so lucky. I wish I could do that.”

To which I respond: 1) we’re not lucky, but rather, we worked very hard to create this life for ourselves; and 2) anyone can do what we’ve done, but it’s not necessarily easy.

For the first point, while many people who’ve taken the expat route simply get fed up with their rat race lives, decide to quit one day, start traveling the world, and then end up settling down in the place they liked most (or the place they ran out of money), that was not the case for us. Rather, we planned our expat life meticulously over a year in advance but generally had been planning it since the day we met, several years before we ultimately set out on this path.

When we met, we were both living in Chicago and I had been working for a large law firm for six years. Having saved a lot of money and become fed up with the grind of the American rat race, I was ready to quit and travel the world. My wife, however, was six years younger than me and was thus just beginning her career in marketing. Consequently, she wasn’t quite ready to take the plunge but was generally open to the idea at a later point in time.

As a result, we moved to NYC where we had both always wanted to live, continued the rat race life for two more years, allowing us to save even more for traveling, despite the insane cost of living in NYC, and allowing my wife to get a little more career experience before setting off on our own.

When we finally set a tentative date for our departure from the US, about a year before we took off, our original plan was just to travel the world for a year and then likely return home. After further contemplation, however, we decided rather than just traveling and returning home with likely no realistic options other than returning to the life we so desperately wanted to leave behind, why not move somewhere for a year or more and allow ourselves the opportunity to come back to our home country on our terms whenever we wanted, or conceivably not come home at all.

And so we chose Bangkok, Thailand as our base, in part because we wanted to do most of our traveling in SE Asia and in part because we love big cities and I had been to Thailand many years ago and recalled falling in love with it at first sight, smell and taste.

Approximately eight months before moving to Thailand, we came up with a checklist of things we wanted to do to best prepare ourselves for success. First and foremost, as we were planning to become teachers in Bangkok, we took an online TEFL course which required us to commit 120 hours each over a several month period, despite both of us continuing to perform our regular 50+ hours a week jobs.

Second, as we knew we wanted to teach at a university (as opposed to an elementary or high school; I just don’t have the patience for kids), we researched and contacted literally every single university in the Bangkok area, ultimately finding our home at Assumption University in Bangna, a place we’ve come to fall in love with, both in terms of its aesthetic beauty and the kindness of its students and administration.

With our jobs secured, next came all our trip planning. Before moving to Thailand, we were planning to take a three month vacation through South America, India, Nepal to hike Everest Base Camp, Cambodia and Laos. It was sort of an extended honeymoon as we were planning to get married several weeks before our departure.

In fact, instead of buying my wife an expensive ring which she never would have taken all over the world (a great choice in hindsight considering we were robbed within an hour of arriving in Argentina), I told her I would pay for our entire three month vacation instead.

In fact, although many Americans (at least in our circle of friends) typically (and preposterously) spend three months’ salary on an engagement ring, upon walking into the jewelry store to purchase my wife a much more modest ring, the salesperson not surprisingly tried to lead me towards the extravagant ring section. When I told her my plan in lieu of spending 3 months’ salary on a wedding ring, she proclaimed, “Wow. I would much rather have that vacation too.”

After the trip planning, travel and hotel reservations, obtaining the relevant visas, we turned our attention to ancillary things like getting the right vaccinations and printing out maps from every bus/train station to our hotels.

In fact, we were so over prepared that we ended up buying Thailand tourist visas even though we later had to purchase overlapping work visas too (initially we weren’t sure of our start date and thus wanted to be sure we could remain in Thailand even without the work visas).

After our first few months of living and working in Thailand, we immediately began ‘working on’ planning our next three month summer vacation through SE Asia (2 weeks in Vietnam, 2 weeks in the Philippines, 3 weeks in Indonesia, a week in Singapore and Brunei and 3 weeks in Malaysia, including Borneo).

Like our first, this trip also required several months of planning. But unlike in America when we had to work for somebody else, this time it felt like we were working for ourselves.

Beyond the foregoing, we’ve done two more significant trips in our four years abroad, one to Japan, Taiwan and China for 7 weeks, and another a road trip across the US. Not to mention countless smaller vacations throughout the school year. In fact, as I’m writing this article, we’re currently on a 3 week trip in South Korea and back to Japan (this time Hokkaido, which we didn’t visit before, for skiing). And each time, contrary to popular belief, we don’t just show up and wing it like many backpackers often do, nor do we use a travel agency like many of our Western friends would, but rather, we spend countless hours researching and planning in order to make the most of this wonderful opportunity that we created for ourselves.

And so fast forward to today, and here we still are, four years later, living our dream in Bangkok and living the life we never thought possible. In fact, starting in January, I’m actually taking a leave of absence from my university to work remotely for my law firm back in the US.

While I actually prefer teaching more, the opportunity was too good to pass up and now, rather than being at the beck and call of my firm, I’m able to work remotely, whenever I want, however much I want. Similarly, my wife, with the marketing experience she gained in the US, recently started her own company selling skincare and beauty products online. Neither of these things would have been possible had we stayed in the rat race, as there is simply never enough time to work for yourself or accomplish any of your personal goals when you’re always working for ‘the man’.

But make no mistake about it, this life didn’t come easy. It took years of research, planning, sacrifice and countless hours of making tough decisions, fighting (lots and lots of fighting), and even regrets (never about the ultimate choice we’ve made to move abroad but rather about which countries/cities to visit, when to visit them and which sights to see: my FOMO is second to none).

And so to all those folks who think we’re lucky, I say, we didn’t get lucky. Rather, we created our own luck. Everyone, with few unfortunate exceptions, has choices. And it’s the choices you make that determine whether you’re ‘lucky’ or not.

Some people want steady but tireless jobs with a nice house in the suburbs and a fancy car. Other people, like me and my wife, want adventure and life experience. And while it may sound dreamy, I assure you it isn’t always (for instance, getting attacked by mosquitos in your own tent in the Amazon jungle, falling through a hole in the ground in an outhouse on Day 1 of an 11 day hike to Everest Base Camp, sleeping in airports and on buses, hitchhiking because that’s the only viable option, getting ripped off countless times despite considering yourself a seasoned traveler, and other examples).

But we wouldn’t trade these things for anything in the world. We’ve worked far too hard to get them, and sacrificed far too much. For example, though we’re getting a little more sophisticated in our later years, when we first started traveling, we’d often take fan rooms over aircon to save a few extra bucks, take 12 hour buses and trains instead of a 1-2 hour plane ride, eat street food and buy alcohol from 7-Eleven rather than eat at sit-down restaurants and drink at bars (OK, we still do those two things quite often).

Contrarily, when we lived in the US, we lived in a luxury condo, owned a luxury car, ate at fancy restaurants and went to fancy bars, and generally owned every modern amenity one could want. But when we moved to Thailand, we sold all of those material possessions and have lived a much more modest life. You see, we’ve come to value life experiences over material possessions. But that’s our choice, and not everyone thinks similarly.

Most of our American friends prefer to maintain their fancy lifestyles back home, at the expense of working long hours at jobs they don’t enjoy, and taking a single but luxurious two week vacation every year.

We used to be those people too. But we’ve come to view life differently now. At the end of the day, you can’t make choices for other people so don’t let other people make choices for you.

But the next time you hear about someone living in a tropical paradise and traveling the world, don’t tell them how lucky they are. Realize that you too can live that life. It’s not an easy life and doesn’t come without sacrifice. But it’s certainly doable. You just have to want it bad enough and plan ahead.

You can’t just show up at Suvarnabhumi airport and expect it to be handed to you on a silver platter.

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