I have to leave Thailand?!
No, not really.
But let’s imagine that scenario for a moment.
After all, I’m nothing more than a grateful guest of this amazing country.
If a situation of some kind (e.g., continued tightening of visa policies, upheaval, etc.) were to come to pass, it’s not totally unimaginable that I’d have no choice but to move somewhere else. This is highly unlikely, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.
Beyond that, it’s always possible that I feel ready and excited at some point to live somewhere else.
I absolutely love living in Thailand. My early retirement lifestyle here is a dream come true.
Moving abroad and taking advantage of geographic arbitrage is, in my opinion, almost a necessity for unlocking the full potential of early retirement. I lay that out in my most recent best-selling book, 5 Steps To Retire In 5 Years.
I’ve been living in Chiang Mai for two years now. And I hope I can remain a grateful guest of Thailand for many years to come.
Just as well, though, I could easily see loving life and enjoying my lifestyle in a handful of other locations. I think my lifestyle in Thailand could be approximated in a number other places throughout Southeast Asia.
Moreover, in the future, I could potentially end up rotating between a stable of 2-3 different cities for the sake of variety and taking advantage of the different pros/cons.
I thought it would be interesting and worthwhile to share some of these ideas with you readers.
More importantly, I wanted to break down some alternatives for any readers out there who want to move abroad but can’t or don’t want to live in Thailand.
Maybe you want to leave wherever you’re at, but Thailand doesn’t appeal to you. That’s OK. It’s a big world out there.
So let’s explore some alternative ideas for long-term living here in SE Asia (my preferred region of the world).
These are SE Asian cities that, if I had to leave Thailand tomorrow, I could easily move to and live in. And I see all of them as viable alternatives for aspiring SE Asian expats out there.
Every city listed is quite large. All else equal, I generally prefer to live in bigger cities over smaller cities – up to a point. In my view, it seems that cities with populations of ~600,000 to ~2 million people strike a balance. You get the amenities and urban vibrancy that a certain critical mass offers, without the problems that mega cities tend to bring about.
However, Asian countries often have massive primate cities. Bangkok is perhaps the best example of that. Thus, the cities I’m presenting run larger than I would ordinarily favor.
I’m basing these locations on the following criteria:
- Low COL/high value
- Friendly visa policies
- Friendly tax policies
- Variety of delicious food
- Year-round warm weather
- Friendly/fun populace
- Laid-back culture/enjoyable ambiance
- Ease of meeting people for relationships
- General cultural preferences
- Prevalent urbanity in the large/capital cities
- Walkability and access to robust public transit
- A good level of infrastructure, broad development, and amenities
- Quality healthcare
- Personal safety
- Access to world-class beaches would be a plus, but it’s not necessary
If I were to leave Thailand for any reason, these are my top three destinations.
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
If you want something a lot like Thailand, head to Vietnam.
There are some key differences as they pertain to government, language, and history, but the topography and broader way of life are strikingly similar between these two Buddhist countries.
I think of HCMC/Saigon as quite alike to Bangkok in a lot of ways (including very close population numbers), except it’s less developed. It’s also, from what I can see, cheaper. I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a better value, but it does seem like the general level of prices – from housing to food – is lower than what you’d see in Bangkok.
In my opinion, living in Vietnam is like taking a time machine and going back a few years relative to Thailand. When I was in HCMC in early 2019, I felt like it was a more old-school and authentic Asian experience than the more developed and slightly Westernized Bangkok.
This is because of the tourism industry’s impact on Thailand. Just my take on it. Bangkok is routinely the most visited city in the world, so this shouldn’t be a surprise. One city isn’t better than the other, but there are some differences there to be aware of.
I prefer to live in Thailand, overall. But I definitely wouldn’t be heartbroken if I had to live in Vietnam.
Vietnamese people are friendly, the local food is OK, Western food is actually better than what I’ve had in Thailand (certainly due to the French influence), the weather is obviously warm, the city is developed well enough (although notably lacking robust public transit), Vietnam is very safe in general (with a much lower homicide rate than that of both the US and Thailand), and HCMC offers enough urbanity and amenities to keep anyone busy.
The visa situation is preferable. They offer a one-year business visa to Americans like myself. This is a pretty sweet deal.
Plus, Vietnam has some stunning beaches, such as My Khe Beach up in Da Nang. The cool thing about Vietnam is that a lot of their best beaches are easier to access because they’re on the mainland. Thailand’s best beaches are almost always on islands.
I don’t have any personal experience with the healthcare system. However, everything I’ve read indicates that it’s not an issue. Perhaps not up to Thailand’s standard, but fine enough.
Also, the HCMC airport was pleasant and efficient enough to imagine that traveling (both domestically and internationally) is a breeze.
While they don’t have robust public transportation in HCMC, I will say that Grab was super easy to use and extremely cheap. The cars are everywhere. And traffic isn’t as congested as it is in Bangkok. One doesn’t get too sad over the lack of a train system when you can just hire a private car to go across town for a dollar. And I did take a local bus from the airport to District 1 (the central urban district) in HCMC. The bus was modern and clean, with both A/C and wifi. It cost me less than $1 to to travel the 45-minute trek.
One major downside to Vietnam is the residence-based taxation. So if you live there full time and earn significant income from abroad, that could be a sticking point.
Oh, I’ll also quickly say that one thing I didn’t like when I visited HCMC was the way motorbikes storm the sidewalks en masse and ride at high rates of speed. As someone who walks a lot, I didn’t feel nearly as safe or comfortable walking around in Vietnam as I’ve felt here in Thailand. I see motorbikes on sidewalks very occasionally here, but it’s another level altogether in Vietnam.
That said, traffic is less congested compared to BKK because motorbikes are used heavily and take up less room than cars. Related to this point, horns are used gratuitously. Cars and motorbikes practically communicate with one another in one long horn noise. It’s honestly obnoxious.
Due to the difference in tourism, Bangkok absolutely annihilates HCMC on shopping and nightlife. Depends on how important that is to you. Related to this, I noticed a much greater language barrier in HCMC, likely because Thais have had to hone their English for years in order to cater to foreigners.
Lastly, on a personal note, I didn’t care for the coffee there. Vietnamese coffee is much stronger and more robust than the coffee here in Thailand. As someone who’s in a coffee shop pretty much every day, I was a little sad about that. Then again, they have some Western chains, so this could be overcome.
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
This might be my favorite of the three.
The capital city of Malaysia, KL surprisingly flies way under the radar.
If going to HCMC would be like going backward in time relative to BKK, going to KL would be like going forward in time.
The level and quality of development in KL is extremely high. I’ve heard it referred to as a “poor man’s Singapore” more than once. The broader level of infrastructure, development, and quality of life are very high, yet the cost of living is very low (particularly compared to Singapore). The COL seems roughly on par with Bangkok.
Notably, the HDI – ranked #57 – of Malaysia is substantially higher than that of either Thailand (#83) or Vietnam (#116).
In some ways, I can even see how one’s quality of life in Malaysia might be higher than that of my chosen home of Thailand. Depends on what you value.
I think of living in KL as a slightly less Asian experience than that of BKK, so this would be a great place to go if you’re looking for something more thoroughly Western. English, for example, is far more prevalent in KL than BKK.
KL, from what I can see, is also an order of magnitude less intense than Bangkok, which sorta jibes with the difference in population (1.8 million for KL versus 8.3 million for BKK). Indeed, KL is the smallest city on this list. As such, I wouldn’t be surprised if day-to-day life is the most enjoyable here.
Now, Malaysia has a very different culture than that of Thailand. Thailand is largely Buddhist, while Malaysia is largely Muslim. Which one would be better to be around comes down to a personal preference. That said, KL itself is fairly multicultural and diverse across religions, ethnicities, etc. That in and of itself could be an issue, however, as I’ve read numerous reports of how these different cultures and religions present tension. Thailand is rather peaceful, perhaps owing to its homogeneity.
The people seem relatively friendly, the weather is very warm, the variety and quality of local food is great, the COL is low, the QOL is high, the development is up there with (or better than) any major American city, the urban parks (such as KLCC Park) are beautiful, the entertainment options are plentiful, public transportation is robust, and personal safety is excellent.
Malaysia isn’t known for its beaches. But there are options, such as the Perhentian Islands. Moreover, the entire region is so full of amazing beaches, it’s basically moot.
One thing that’s idiosyncratic about KL is the fact that alcohol is quite expensive (relative to other SE Asian locations). I don’t often drink, so this isn’t an issue for me personally.
Also interesting is the climate. Most SE Asian cities have a similar climate. But Kuala Lumpur gets a lot of rain – I’d argue too much rain – particularly during the winter monsoon season. It averages just over 100 inches per year. The city sees 223 days of rain, on average, in a year. Makes Bangkok look dry by comparison. The best/driest time of year is actually in the summer.
The visa situation in Malaysia is certainly more advantageous than what’s going on in Thailand. You get 90 days on arrival (for Americans), and there doesn’t appear to be currently a limit on how many of these visas you can get in a single year. That could, and likely will, change in the near future. But they have the MM2H visa for long-term stays.
By contrast, it’s getting more and more difficult for foreigners to live in Thailand year-round, especially for those trying to effectively live here on tourist visas. The days of “border runs” are gone. I’ve been reading reports of Westerners with tourist visas validly issued from embassies and consulates actually getting denied at airport entries. Even the top-rung visas, like the “O-A”, have become more difficult to ascertain and maintain. It’s becoming pretty clear that the Elite Visa is the best way to stay in Thailand long term, chiefly for those under 50 years old.
Also, it’s notable that Malaysia features a territorial tax system. This is highly beneficial if you earn a lot of money from abroad, don’t have a local job, and want to minimize your tax burden. It’s an easier system than what exists in Thailand, where you have to avoid remitting money in the same year it was earned.
I should also quickly mention that Kuala Lumpur’s KLIA is well-connected and is the main hub for AirAsia, the region’s low-cost carrier. So traveling in/out of KL should be super cheap. However, that’s offset a bit by the fact that KLIA is far from the city, making it time consuming and expensive to get to/from the airport.
The connected nature of the city might lend itself to being so highly visited. It was the seventh-most visited city in the world in 2018. That put it just behind NYC, but ahead of Tokyo.
A bit of a wildcard.
I’m actually speaking of Metro Manila here.
Metro Manila is an area of contrasts.
Going to HCMC is taking a step back in time relative to BKK, while going to KL is taking a step forward. But going to Metro Manila is taking both, simultaneously.
That’s because you have amazing urban enclaves like Makati and Bonifacio Global City (both of which are actually separate from the city of Manila itself) juxtaposed against large swaths of abject poverty across much of the Metro Manila area (which is massive). Metro Manila’s population is over 12 million, and many of those people live in very poor environments.
The country is coming along, though, and the spirit of the Filipinos is awesome.
Speaking of which, everything I hear about Filipinos is impressive. Their attitude, work ethic, and optimism. It’s infectious. This is probably the only country on the list where I’d find friendlier interactions than that of what I experience here in Thailand, which is already off the charts. I’d almost want to stay in the Philippines just because of how sweet the people are. The country seems really fun. Very sanuk-like. This goes a long way for me.
The HDI for the Philippines is similar to that of Vietnam. However, as I just noted, I think Vietnam’s level of development is more evenly spread/flattened out, whereas there’s the more extreme juxtaposition of development and money in the Philippines. I don’t necessarily see that as an issue for an expat, but it might limit one’s living/exploring options to specific areas.
The visa situation is the best on the list. One can stay for three years in the Philippines on a tourist visa (repeatedly renewing it) without leaving the country, which is almost unheard of. There’s also the SRRV option. The SRRV is a retirement scheme available to people as young as 35. Finally, a country that understands early retirement!
And they have a territorial tax system.
English is widely spoken and understood. The Philippines is regularly ranked among the largest English-speaking countries in the world, which is why they have so many call centers based there.
They have warm weather, world-class beaches (some of the best in the world, really), intense urbanity in Manila, thousands of islands to explore, a ton of Western food (because of the American influence), and legendary hospitality. The COL is low compared to the West, but it’s the most expensive city on this list for my lifestyle (relegating it to the worst value, relatively speaking). There’s also the dating scene, which is renowned. If you’re a single guy, it’s one of the best places on the planet.
On the flip side, the Philippines is not as safe as the other countries on this list. Beyond the worries about crime, the Philippines gets regularly blasted by tropical cyclones. One thing I like about Thailand is the lack of natural disasters. It would thus be wise to avoid the Philippines during August and September.
One strange thing about Manila is the apartment situation. They’re relatively expensive. And they usually require long leases and hefty deposits. I had my apartment in Chiang Mai selected, paid for, and moved into about 20 minutes after setting foot in the lobby. No long-term lease or big deposit. I could do the same thing in Bangkok. Setting up an awesome apartment in Thailand is a breeze compared to the Philippines. The Philippines seems to operate a lot like the United States in this regard, unfortunately.
I’ve also heard mixed reviews on the healthcare, although I’m still quite young and healthy.
In addition, I don’t think the Filipino food would offer nearly the level of enjoyment of what I’d get in Vietnam or Malaysia, let alone in Thailand. That’s offset somewhat by the preponderance of Western food/chains, but this does negate one of the biggest advantages of geographic arbitrage. It’s probably unfair that the Philippines gets a bad rap for food, as they’re located in a region with some of the best cuisines in the world.
There’s also the dearth of robust public transportation. This is a huge bummer. Metro Manila’s traffic is legendary. It’s some of the worst in the world. That means Grab cars. And long waits. And a lot of time in traffic when a car finally does arrive. If it’s raining heavily, this would be a big problem.
I’ve also heard from firsthand reports that Wi-Fi and mobile data can be horrendously unreliable.
And the city’s airport is widely regarded as being a major headache to deal with. This is exacerbated by the fact that air travel is more necessary in the Philippines than the other countries I’m talking about today because it’s a collection of islands. One of the country’s biggest selling points (the fact that the Philippines is an archipelago comprised of over 7,000 islands) is actually one of its biggest weaknesses. Transportation, in general, is not this country’s strong suit. This is due to a broader issue with relatively poor infrastructure in general.
One interesting aspect about the Philippines is the fact that it’s mainly a Christian nation. The large number of churches (instead of temples) kind of stands out here in SE Asia. The Philippines has had a lot of influence from both America and Spain, for better or worse.
Lastly, the Philippines is quite far from the mainland SE Asian countries. As far as major SE Asian cities go, Manila is about as south and east as it gets. This means longer trips to get around the surrounding region.
This was largely a hypothetical exercise, but I think it’s valuable to always have back-up options. I also want to note it was a personal exercise – these are cities that appeal to me, based on my preferences and priorities.
Whereas a lot of people might not even have a Plan B, I have a Plan Z. I try to anticipate every possible outcome in life, then have a dynamic spectrum of options to fall back on. Indeed, I considered all of these places before I ultimately picked Thailand, so they were automatically put on an auxiliary list if things didn’t work out here.
If I had to (or wanted to) leave Thailand for any reason, I’d probably set up shop (either temporarily or permanently) in one of these cities. One of the amazing things about financial freedom is that it also confers geographic freedom. Financial independence is also location independence. Having that flexibility is phenomenal.
In fact, I see myself possibly living a more mobile life in the future.
My “home” could very well be in 2-3 different cities. It might be most beneficial and interesting to have a base (or two) in SE Asia, along with a summer retreat in an Eastern European city (such as Budapest or Prague).
Six months in BKK, three months in KL, and three months in Budapest doesn’t sound too shabby.
This would provide one with great variety in life, while at the same time avoiding a lot of issues with living in one SE Asian city full time (weather, visas, etc.). But I absolutely despise flying, so we’ll see about this.
At any rate, I thought it was a lot of fun to consider alternative choices. Before I decided on Thailand, I looked strongly at all of these places (and many others). I wanted to find the most advantageous place in the whole world to live my life. Thailand was my choice. It’s a choice I don’t regret for a second. But I’m confident that life would be pretty good in these cities, too.
I have a real passion for researching different places around the world. And I wanted to share some of that research with you readers, which I hope provided some value and perspective regarding some of the other options in SE Asia.
Anyone out there who is interested in retiring in SE Asia, but does not fancy Thailand, may want to take a close look at these other options.
What do you think? Ever live in any of these cities? Any personal experiences to share? If you were to retire in SE Asia, what are some of your top choices?
Thanks for reading.
P.S. If you’d like to become financially independent (and location independent) at a very early age, check out some fantastic resources that I personally used on my way to becoming financially free at 33!