Thailand is known as a digital nomad hub. Expats from dozens of nationalities call the country home, and not just those with location-independent jobs. The retirement Visa in Thailand for those over 50 is great; it’s easy to get a work permit and teach English or find another job in the country. And the nightlife is great if that’s your thing.
However, while one of the main draws of the country is the cheap economy, living in Thailand can cost a fortune.
Everyone says it’s cheap to live in Thailand, but the phrase should be: “It’s cheap to live like a Thai in Thailand.” If you’re looking for the comforts of home, you’re going to be spending considerably more.
With the exception of a few cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, SE Asia has an economy generally far cheaper than Western countries. Meals can commonly be purchased for $0.50. Hostels are as little as $2 a night, and even hotels can be very cheap.
The best part is that you can fly to Bangkok from most parts of the world for under $500 one-way. I’ve even seen round-trip tickets from the States to Thailand for under $500!
Despite all that, you can quickly go broke in Thailand, especially if you’re looking for western comforts.
If you’re planning on living in Thailand long-term, it’s good to know what your options are.
Many Thai dwellings are little more than a one-room shelter with no utilities or amenities. These usually aren’t available to rent, but would probably be about $15 a month. You don’t get much.
Next, you could stay in a cheap hostel all month and pay about $100. You’d be sharing the room with other people, might or might not have a kitchen, and hot water is also not guaranteed. Some spartan condos can also be rented for this price.
If you’re looking for your own place, there are one-bedroom condos starting at around $150 a month and going up to well over $1000. Your amenities will be anything from just the basics (a room and bathroom) to a luxury dwelling with modern facilities (kitchen facilities, pool, gym, spa, etc). If you’re looking for separate bedrooms, a kitchen, etc, you’ll be hard-pressed to find anything less than $500 a month.
Keep in mind that while backpackers have long loved Thailand, they’re joined by plenty of flashpackers and moneyed tourists hitting the resorts of Koh Phangan as well. It’s easy to get a little envious here if you’re on a tight budget.
Food Costs in Thailand
When it comes to eating, most meals at street food vendors can be purchased for $0.50-$1. The quality is usually quite good. If you go to a local Thai restaurant, expect to pay $1-$3. That’s not to say there aren’t Thai restaurants charging $30 a plate; I’ve tried them and the quality is fantastic.
If you’re like me and need to balance Thai and Western food, you’ll really need to watch your expenses. There are street vendors selling hamburgers and pizza for $3, but the better quality stands average $6-$10. At night markets, you can get 10 pieces of sushi of questionable quality for $0.50, or you can get a set of 8 rolls at a decent restaurant for $3. The more expensive sushi restaurants, like Fiji, will charge you $10-$20 for the same set. That’s fairly comparable to any American restaurant.
Then there are drinks. A bottle of water from the market is a mere $0.25, and a beer is around $1. These prices double or triple if you buy the drink at a restaurant. Cocktails are about $4 and up. While that’s still cheaper than many Western countries, it can add up very fast, especially if you’re the partying type.
Similarly, if you want to buy food in a market to bring home, you can lose a fortune purchasing western food. Ask the Thais where they get their produce and tag along if you really want to save money.
Transportation can cost a fortune simply for not knowing the tricks of the trade. Don’t ever step foot into a taxi in Thailand without having them turn on the meter. Aside from it being illegal (for both the driver and you), they will charge you anywhere from 2 to 10 times the metered fare. In Chiang Mai, it is even more difficult to separate the local “bus” system of buses and songthaews (covered, red pick-up trucks with two benches in the back) from the “mafia” driven knock-off songthaews. Official local buses are rarely more than $0.50 anywhere in Thailand while the competition charges $5-$10.
Similarly, long-distance travel within Thailand varies greatly. NCA, a luxury bus line running throughout Thailand but primarily from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, costs $15 and is an airplane on wheels with all the luxuries (dinner, movies and even massages built into the chairs). For the same price, you can end up on a mosquito-infested, sweltering bus with babies crying and following a dubious schedule. You can also pay three times that price for an even poorer experience.
Traveling from Bangkok to Cambodia can cost $15 on a nice bus, or $1 on the train. With the train, you get what you pay for.
Essentially, there’s always a way to travel somewhere in Thailand for virtually pennies. You just might have to ask around to find the best deals, as they change constantly and seem to be guarded secrets. The real reason most people locals don’t know about the transportation tricks is most of them have their own scooter, and don’t bother with the bus.
Attractions in Thailand
Thailand capitalizes on the tourism industry, and attractions across the country are 2 to 5 times more expensive for foreigners as they are for locals. Waterfalls, aquariums, museums and other activities all follow this pattern.
Some attractions have entrepreneurial locals who have taken advantage of the location to make a bit of money for survival. At the airplane graveyard in Bangkok, the families living there charge a paltry $6 to explore the relics.
However, there are plenty of attractions in Thailand which are completely free. If you don’t want to pay $6 to visit a waterfall, there might be another one just down the road that you can swim in for free. In the hippie village of Pai, there is a tourist hot springs for $6, and another 10 miles away that locals use for $0.50 (tourists are welcome at the same price).
Budget Tips for Living in Thailand
Thus, your weekly budget in Thailand could be anywhere from $30 to $500, depending on how much you want to spend, and how many comforts of home you need.
If you accept the adventure and stay in a hostel (cold showers are actually delicious in Thailand’s heat), eat yummy Thai street food (with an occasional Western meal every couple days), follow the locals onto the local transportation systems and go sober (wishful thinking on a vacation), you can easily hit that $30 mark. If you need your hotel room, three Western meals a day and let taxis take advantage of you, bring your Platinum Visa.
Why You Should Visit
Don’t let the possibility of a steep budget put you off visiting Thailand. The country is amazing and unique in many ways, and also a great place to start traveling in if you have yet to leave your home country.
Bangkok is shaping up to be a world class city, and already receives over 15 million visitors annually, keeping it in the top five most visited cities in the world. But Bangkok isn’t the only place to see in Thailand. Ko Phi Phi Lee’s Maya Bay gained world fame as the setting of Leonardo DiCaprio’s movie The Beach. Ko Pha Ngan island (pronounced pawnyawn) is [in]famous for the Full Moon Party. Koh Chang is beautiful but without the flocks of tourists. Chiang Mai is an up-and-coming modern city. Pai is a hippie community. The list goes on.
The food alone is reason enough to visit Thailand. If you think you like Pad Thai, you probably haven’t tried the real thing. It’s nearly impossible to find real Pad Thai around the world which is as good as that served in Thailand.
There are waterfalls, caves, hot springs, elephant sanctuaries, zip lines, national forests, lakes, rivers, you name it. The cities have temples and museums, amusement parks and shopping malls (Central World in Bangkok is third biggest mall in the world). Whatever your passion, you’re sure to find it in Thailand.
Looking for more info on this subject? See a few expats’ take on it in this post from our editor Tim: What It Costs to Live in Thailand – Expats and Nomads Speak.