The Western Attraction to Thailand

Bangkok Skyline on a muggy day

The big mystery that many a Thailand tourist or expat has struggled with is why are Westerners so captivated with Thailand?  What is it that makes tourists keep coming back, notwithstanding all of the scams, political unrest and corruption?  Why do Westerns suddenly pull up stumps and move to Thailand, often working in a dead end job for less pay than they earned in the West.  Why do retirees give up the comforts of (usually free) Western medical care for a more challenging life in a developing country?

Many authors and bloggers have offered their own opinions on the matter.  For instance:

  • I’ve been to Thailand more times than I can count. I’ve lived in Bangkok twice, and if I stay away for more than a year, I feel as if a piece of me is missing… People often ask me why I return to places I’ve already visited instead of exploring somewhere new. Well, that’s an easy answer: it’s because I feel attached to them. I feel at home when I’m visiting them. And Thailand is probably the one place outside of the US where I feel most at home.” (Nomadic Matt, “11 Reasons Why I Love Thailand”;
  • “I was sick of living what I felt was a routine, soul-crushing, pencil-pushing, life-sucking existence. I realized that I needed a challenge that would let me feel….. anything different!” (Maya Datani, “What to Expect When You Move to Bangkok”;
  • “When I’m behind Thai people who are moseying down the sidewalk while munching on a skewer of pineapple, I slow my roll too. I no longer glorify a frantic, fast-paced lifestyle, nor do I believe that being stressed is the only path to success.” (Casey O’Connell, “11 American Habits I Lost When I Moved to Thailand”;
  • “I can live comfortably on our pension here and live a good lifestyle, where at home it’s pretty hard [and] you’ve got to cut corners.” (Ken Bingham, quoted by SBS Dateline, “Champagne Lifestyle on a Lemonade Budget: Why So Many Aussies Are Moving to Thailand”;
  • “It’s cheap, its beautiful, its filled with employment opportunity, its got a wild nightlife, and its got food, lots of it” (paraphrased from Kevin Cook, “5 Reasons Why I Left America to Live in Thailand”;

Nomadic Matt provides a very representative list of reasons for why Thailand is so popular with tourists.  In his blog, he highlights the delicious food, the warm weather, the friendly (and beautiful) locals, the great travel experience, the international environment, the convenience (of purchasing anything at any time of day), Bangkok (a reason it itself – the city that never sleeps), and the price.  I would agree with most of Matt’s list, and I certainly get the impression from other travellers that these are largely their reasons for visiting Thailand as well.  In addition, I think another reason, not often mentioned, is the exoticness of Thailand, mixed with an element of danger, but there is always the ability to retreat back into familiar Western territory (ie back into the expat areas of Bangkok).

For expats, I can certainly understand the allure of Thailand.  It presents that break from the Western debt-trap that most of us succumb to.  The 9 to 5 routine and the 25 year mortgage that many of us are stuck with.  Moving to and working in Bangkok creates an exciting break from this routine and freedom from the shackles of debt.  Thailand provides a complete lifestyle change, where you can travel to work by boat if you want to (as Jim Thomson once proclaimed in an interview) or work out in the forest, surrounded by tigers and elephants.  However, that sense of adventure also comes with the knowledge that there is security nearby and an ability to retreat back to Western comforts when homesickness sets in.  In that sense, Thailand does offer both ends of the spectrum.  It has Western style conveniences and old world Asian charm.  Bangkok alone offers that dychotomy with some of the world’s larger shopping centres, glass sky-scrapers and modern light rail systems, coupled with golden temples, wooden boats plying concrete lined canals and the occasional lost elephant meandering through the traffic.

Even for retirees, I can see the attraction.  A western pension goes a long way in Thailand, where the average income is far lower than the West and the cost of living commensurate with that difference.  Add in the high quality healthcare (but only at particular hospitals), warm weather, and the ability to choose either fast paced excitement or slow tranquility, and it becomes a no-brainer to me as to where I plan to spend a good chunk of my retirement years.

All of the above are certainly compelling reasons for visiting or moving to Thailand, but there are plenty of other countries that offer similar benefits.  I don’t believe the above factors truly explain why, as examples:

  • Thailand is currently one of the most popular tourism destinations (Bangkok is currently the second most visited city in the world);
  • in the last ten years Thailand has received a surge of expatriates seeking employment, particularly in Bangkok, but also in all other corners of the Kingdom; and
  • Thailand has become a major retirement destination for Westerners, especially with Scandinavians and Britons, where it has become one of the largest foreign retirement destinations for those nationalities.
Wooden bridge on Ko Samet
Wooden bridge on Ko Samet

My own  view is that there is a more subconscious lure that Thailand provides, that Westerners are not necessarily conscious of.  It isn’t just that visiting or living in Thailand is exciting, but that you feel good while there.  I believe this positive experience arises because of the nature of Thai people and Thai culture.  It is after all, the people of a country that shapes the experience that others will have in it.  In Thailand, everyday life is built around the concept of “Sanuk”.  Sanuk loosely translates as “to have fun”, but its true meaning goes beyond any concepts available in the Western world.  Whilst Westerners see “fun” as a shallow experience, Thais use sanuk as a yardstick for measuring their everyday experiences and how well their lives are going.  They seek out sanuk experiences in all of their daily encounters.  Whether it is at home, whilst shopping, going to school or going to work, each experience should be sanuk, and if it isn’t, then it should be avoided.

This sanuk attitude to life creates a playfulness in the average Thai person that is hard to find in Westerners.  In Western eyes, it perhaps makes Thais seem more immature or childish, but to Thais they would rather enjoy life rather than take everything too seriously and become stressed out.  In fact, Thais commonly criticise Westerners for always looking so serious or “thinking too much” (yes, thinking too much is a criticism in the Thai language, not a compliment).  This sanuk culture is, in my opinion, a critical reason for why Thailand is so addictive.  Yes, it does have a lot of other benefits that are attractive, but its the sanuk-ness that make is the icing on the cake that makes Thailand addictive.

However, be careful with the addictiveness of Thailand.  Although there are many positives to visiting and living in the country, there are some major downsides too, and often they are not so obvious to newcomers.  The Thailand-based author, Christopher G. Moore perhaps defined the concept the best in his book “The Big Weird”, where he refers to it as “The Sickness”.  Although Moore’s concept was described with the single Western male traveller’s exploits in mind, the sickness is a reference to how Thailand becomes so addictive to the Western traveller that he (or she) cannot control their need to keep travelling to or remain living in Thailand, no matter what the toll it takes on their Western careers (and relationships).  With more experience in Thailand, the sickness gradually fades until sometimes the opposite extreme arises, where the Western expat begins to actually loathe Thailand.  Unfortunately, some have burned so many bridges that return to their homeland is no longer an easy option.

Accordingly, be careful with the addiction that is Thailand.  Yes, it has become an extremely popular destination for Westerners for a large variety of reasons (travel, work, retirement), such as weather, low cost of living, less stress, escape from the Western debt trap, and great food.  In addition to these, I believe what makes the country truly addictive is the Thai sense of sanuk and the overall playful nature of the Thais.  However be aware that the honeymoon phase (or the sickness as Mr Moore refers to it) does not last forever, so for those contemplating living in Thailand long term, make sure you always have an exit strategy.



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