You can retire right where you are living now – a familiar place, totally within your comfort zone with the people you know around you along with familiar foods and experiences.
But for some people the idea of retiring in their home country is becoming increasingly out of reach and others are looking to at the adventure of living abroad.
There is an alternative. Whilst retiring on a tropical island in south east Asia may seem idyllic, it’s not for everyone and you need to know about the drawbacks as well.
Phuket is Thailand’s biggest island and is on the Andaman Sea side of the southern Thailand peninsula, facing the Indian Ocean. There’s a whole lot of reasons that life on a modern tropical island might sound ideal – great weather, low cost of living, stable government (although not the same as the democracy you might come from) and plenty of expats to become your new friends.
The island has many dimensions, not just the popular tourist town of Patong. It also has great shopping, at all levels, a huge array of accommodation options (at all budgets), an international airport with hundreds of local and international flights each day, modern internet and infrastructure, rainforests and over 30 excellent beaches.
But you would be well advised to have a trip to Phuket before packing up your life and moving to Thailand.
Phuket has a tropical, year-round hot and humid climate. It’s always hot – your only worry is if it’s raining or not raining. The seasons are well defined and predictable but, living here, you’ll enjoy both. It gets hot during February to May, then humid from May to November, then crier and clear blue skies for most of December through to April (there are a few variations to that theme but it’s mostly accurate).
Phuket has an international airport with direct flights coming in from all corners of the globe. The schedules change frequently so you’ll have to do your own homework when looking for flights. It’s also a one flight from Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, or an hour and a half from Singapore, which opens up a lot of easy options to find flights into Phuket.
Getting around Thailand, there is a well developed range of short hops from point to point within Thailand, and plenty of options to fly from Phuket for short weekend breaks, or longer trips, to neighbouring countries. You are spoiled for options with discount and legacy airlines.
For retirees, or people with long-stay visas, you will need to either have a multiple entry stamp in your visa (which you can apply for at the time of the visa or add later), or get a single re-entry permit every time you leave the country. You can also apply for these and pay at the airport on your way out (ask at the immigration section BEFORE you get stamped out of the country).
COST OF LIVING
There are many ways to tackle this question. But, bottomline, you can live very cheaply in Phuket but you’ll need to know your way around and have some good friends pointing you in the right direction. If you choose to live like a tourist then you will pay top dollar and find your cost of living much the same as where you come from.
Renting can be very cheap (we don’t recommend buying until you feel well established on the island). Again, if you stay out of the tourist traps (like Patong and most of the west coast touristy towns), you will find good, smaller houses or modern condos for less than 20,000 baht per month. If you want a pool villa, or want to live close to the west coast beaches, expect to pay more, say between 40 – 80,000 baht plus.
Same applies to food. Stick to local restaurants and Thai food and you’ll eat very well, very cheaply. If you want to go to more international-style restaurants in popular tourist areas, you will pay top dollar. Notably, the standard of food is very high, at either end of the budget. With the local street food, it’s also universally good and tasty – just use your common sense if you think something has been sitting around in the sun all day!
You can good an excellent Thai meal for less than 80 baht in the market, small restaurants out of the tourist ones and food courts.
Shopping in markets will always be cheaper than in the air-conditioned shopping centres and malls, especially for food and basics. There’s also a growing range of online shopping options where just about anything can delivered to your door these day, from your weekly groceries to a swimming pool, or a new TV or some new shoes.
Transport around Phuket is problematic and not well developed. Largely because of a strong taxi “mafia”, Phuket has few options for overseas travellers.
The challenge starts when you get off the plane when you’re not even out of the arrivals area before being deluged in taxi touts. If you think you can book a ride-hailing service like Grab or Bolt tog et around it, sure, but you’ll need to walk outside of the airport property to catch their lift (it’s only a 2 minute walk out to the main road).
Besides that there is an airport bus running, depending on where on the island you want to go.
Otherwise there is little other choice than getting a friend, or your hotel, to pick you up, which we warmly recommend if it’s your first time.
Getting from tourist hot spot to tourist hot spot, or the next town, is usually down to the mostly red tuk tuks (small 3-cylinder Daihatsu converted vans) to do the work. Like the taxis, you’re at the mercy of the drivers who will demand a fixed fee for your journey (make sure you negotiate this before you get in).
The other alternative, once you’re on the island, is to hire a driver for a day or days – this usually works out quite cheap – and provides you with someone who at least will know their way around.
Or rent a car or motorbike – easy enough, but these deserve an entire article each.
For long-term retirees, you will probably want to buy your own car or motorbike. Sales of new and second hand cars are available all around the island and hundreds of online marketplaces. You will need a Thai license for riding a motorbike or a car, where your own national license will not cut it, legally and International Drivers Licences are only allowed to be used for a limited time.
There is excellent healthcare available around Phuket. Available and probably a lot cheaper than where you come from. There are public hospitals, mostly servicing the local population (who all have free, universal health care). Then there are the many small private clinics where you’ll arrive and wait in a queue, along with everyone else.
You an also go to a private hospital emergency section where you will be quickly triaged and attended to. For simple visits, you can probably pay as you go. For more complicated issues you will need to provide information about your private insurance. Ensure that you get these arrangements straight before you are treated (not always easy, depending on who you end up in ‘emergency’ in the first place).
Medical tourism is also well-established on the island with some excellent services for many procedures available, with some of the best recovery locations available in the world!
Make sure you have travel and health insurance before you come to Thailand, either for a short time or a long time. And check the fine print before you do anything too adventurous, or hire a motorcycle – you may not be covered if something goes wrong.
For retirees you will need good health insurance and a minimum income, savings or pension threshold before applying. For many, the long term health insurance, particularly when you get into your 70s, can become a paperwork challenge, and sometimes expensive.
Cheap, fast and reliable. There are three main phone companies servicing mobile phones and many have home internet packages you can add as well. There are also a number of home internet providers which are equally reliable and inexpensive.
Many countries have either visa fee waivers or visa on arrival services for arriving in Thailand. There are also many long term visa options which get modified from year to year. In very broad terms, they fall into business visas, retirement visas, 10 year long term resident visas (targeting wealthy foreigners or skilled workers), education visas, marriage visas and Elite Visas.
All of these visas cover different options and opportunities, some you are also able to apply for a work permit, some require 90 day reporting (to immigration) and some require leaving Thailand and applying at a foreign embassy.
For retirees, the O and O-A visas are the mostly easily accessed, or the Elite Visa if you want a really “walk in” experience, but you’ll pay for the pleasure. They start at 600,000 baht for 5 years and have other products available up to 20 years in length. You are unable to work, legally, with an Elite Visa, but this visa option is great for those who can afford them where all the heavy lifting (paperwork) is done for you.
Visas are strictly administered by the Thais and you would be well advised to keep your visa up to date, don’t miss any reporting dates and DON’T overstay your visa under any circumstances (to you will be fined, usually at a rate of 500 baht per day).
There are many community groups and associations you can join on the island. With a permanent expat population of 20 – 40,000, you will be able to make friends from around the world.
There is a truism of life in Phuket that your friends will most probably come and go, as there are a lot of people moving to, or working here, for short periods and then moving on. But there’s also around 400,000 locals living on Phuket who can become lifelong friends as well. Learning Thai will certainly help, but you will find quite a high percentage of Thais who speak at least basic conversational English, even other languages, on the island.
As a tourist island, it’s just a face of life that people will come and go. You life in Phuket, and the people you meet, will largely be entirely up to the effort you put into it.
There is a wealth of knowledge on the internet. Do lots of homework before applying for, or committing to, any of these visas.