How would you like to live in a tropical paradise where a meal at a restaurant costs $2, a taxi ride costs $3, and apartments rent for $200 per month?
For decades, Thailand has remained one of the most popular destinations for anyone looking for a tropical climate at a low cost. Just 20 years ago, Lonely Planet’s “Southeast Asia on a Shoestring” introduced millions of readers to Thailand’s oceanfront bungalows, many of which rent for $5 per day (or less for monthly rentals), the delicious street food that can be had for less than a dollar, and the motorbikes that rent for under $3 a day.
Since the book was written, this sunny, southeast Asian nation has seen explosive economic growth and a tremendous rise in living standards. From the capital to the provinces, a combination of aggressive building development, improved educational institutions, and government and nonprofit programs combating poverty and encouraging economic growth have bettered the lives of all its citizens and turned Bangkok into a cosmopolitan city with an infrastructure rivaling some in the United States.
This growth has caused prices to rise, and those $5-daily bungalows are increasingly hard to find. Still, Thailand remains one of the cheapest countries westerners can feel safe in and spend a fraction of what they’d spend for a similar lifestyle back home.
But how cheap is it, really?
Thailand’s many regions offer something for every traveler. From beach towns to bustling cities, and from centers of culture to sleepy hideaways, every lifestyle can be accommodated – as long as you like sunshine.
Bangkok and the Suburbs
Cost of living varies greatly in Thailand’s different regions. As the capital and center of economic activity, Bangkok is naturally the most expensive part of the country.
Luxury apartments can cost more than $2,000 per month in the most desirable parts of Phrom Phong, Thong Lor, and Silom, all of which make up Thailand’s financial center. Penthouse apartments, complete with maid service, a private pool, and panoramic views of the city, can run $4,000 per month or more.
For those who are not willing or able to pay quite that much, affordable options abound. Tourists and backpackers generally rent rooms on Khao San Road, where a decent hotel room costs about $10 to $20 per night. Discounts for monthly rentals are also available.
In other neighborhoods, it’s easy to find a one-bedroom apartment for anywhere between $200 to $600 per month. This price varies mostly depending on how close the building is to a subway station – the closer it is, the more expensive. Several apartment complexes offer one-bedroom apartments for less than $300 monthly, but these tend to be more than a mile from the nearest subway station. These complexes usually offer complementary shuttle service to the station, or you can take a taxi or travel by motorbike, which is a popular option amongst the Thai.
If you prefer to rent a house, you have to venture to the suburbs where a single-family detached house can rent for as little as $150 per month. Neighboring Nonthaburi and Samut Prakan are technically independent cities, but are really more like exurbs of Bangkok. Houses in these regions cost around $150 to $200 per month.
While rents are jaw-droppingly cheap in Thailand, food is another category where you can get tremendous value. Not only do small restaurants offer filling meals for as cheap as $1.50 (for a rice or noodle dish), it’s hard to find a meal costing more than $5 in Bangkok unless you go to a trendy restaurant in the upscale city center. In fact, restaurants are so affordable in Thailand that many people live without kitchens – kitchenless studio apartments can rent for as little as $100 per month. Just be on the lookout for general cleanliness when choosing a place to eat to avoid food poisoning.
One of my favorite aspects of Thai life is the street vendors, which sell both snacks and full meals at incredible prices. Since tropical fruits are native to the country and grow in abundance, fruit vendors are always lining the streets of Bangkok. Expect to pay a dollar for half a papaya, half a mango, or about two pounds of watermelon, already cut up in bite-sized pieces.
Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai
Chiang Mai is a small town in the north of Thailand, near the border of Burma. Despite its location, the city has remained a cosmopolitan hotspot where hundreds of young backpackers, tourists, and expats come for extended holidays. Because of its low costs, beautiful temples, and variety of cafes, nightclubs, and expat and tourist hangouts, it remains a popular destination.
World traveler Shannon O’Donnell reported that, while living in Chiang Mai, she spent a total of $485 per month:
- $160 for rent and Internet
- $20 for utilities (electricity and water)
- $175 for food
- $65 for transportation
- $50 for nights out
- $15 for maid service
While these figures are from 2011 and prices have gone up slightly, it’s not impossible to spend roughly the same amount for a similar lifestyle.
A less popular option is Chiang Rai, which, because it’s a bit more under the radar, can be cheaper than Chiang Mai. Rents are slightly less than those in Chiang Mai: Houses can go for $250 per month, whereas something similar would run about $350 in Chiang Mai. Northeast Chiang Rai is close to the Burmese border, and also offers easy access to Laos.
In both cities, food runs slightly cheaper than in Bangkok. Higher-end restaurants offer the greatest value. A meal in an upscale restaurant can run $5 in Chiang Mai, while a similar place might charge double that in Bangkok. For street vendors and lower-end restaurants, a meal usually runs in the $1 to $3 range.
Phuket, Hua Hin, Ko Samui, and Songkhla
Southern resort areas like Phuket and Ko Samui have surged in cost over the past 20 years as more and more luxury tourists are attracted to their white beaches and stunning scenery. Some apartments in the popular region of Phuket run higher than similar units in several parts of the United States. This also goes for Ko Samui and Hua Hin – a town associated with the Thai royal family and a popular vacation spot for locals.
While rents vary radically depending on proximity to the beach, apartments in these towns start at around $500 per month. For beachfront property, expect to spend well over $1,000 monthly. Only Songkhla, a less popular resort town near the Malaysian border in the south, offers better deals, with some apartments available to rent for $300 per month or less.
In Phuket and Ko Samui, restaurants catering to tourists operate similarly to how they do back home. However, if you eat where the Thai eat, expect prices to be around the same as in Bangkok.
Pattaya, Jomtien, and Rayong
A couple of hours southeast of Bangkok, the beach towns of Pattaya and Jomtien have seen aggressive growth in recent years as investors continue to build high-rise condominiums, causing what looks like a housing bubble from the outside. Thousands of expatriates have chosen to move to these cities, plus neighboring Rayong, for Thailand’s sun, low prices, and relaxed lifestyle.
However, the cost of living in these regions remains low despite their popularity. Pattaya is the most expensive – its nightlife is a big draw for expats – but even there, one-bedroom apartments just off the beach cost only $500 to $700 per month, with lower prices for units farther east. Down the road in Jomtien and Rayong, prices fall even further. Food costs are comparable to those in Bangkok.
Of course, there’s more to life than food and rent. Thailand is famous for its nightlife, and this is where a lot of people run into trouble. While a beer in most bars and nightclubs costs $2 to $4, expats an vacationers can quickly find themselves partying a bit too hard and spending even more than they do back home.
However, life’s necessities are very inexpensive in general. A cell phone plan costs between $15 and $30 per month, and Internet service runs between $20 to $30, depending on your ISP and connection quality. Internet in Thailand tends to be slower and less reliable than in the U.S., but is still functional.
Thailand’s massage culture is world-renowned, and for good reason: Steeped in Buddhist traditions, the techniques of Thai massage have been passed down from generation to generation for centuries. Massage parlors are ubiquitous, and an hour-long massage can cost as little as $7 in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, and about $10 in the rest of the country. If you go to Hua Hin, seek out the masseuses just north of the Santorini Resort north of the city center. They offer a massage on the beach for just $10 per hour.
Don’t forget about the extra costs involved in an intercontinental move. You’re going to have to buy a plane ticket, get a visa, and keep in touch with family at home – and, unless it’s a permanent move, you’re going to have to pay for the move back home. Still, Thailand offers a low-cost sliver of paradise for the adventurous. Just kick back and enjoy the delicious cuisine, friendly people, and beautiful weather.
Have you ever traveled to Thailand? Where do you recommend travelers go?
[photo credit: Joyfull (Pattaya)]