Thursday, February 9, 2012

Thailand: The Price of Paradise


John and Tiff wanted something different, they just didn't know what, or how. They felt beat down living paycheck to paycheck. Tiff worked at a call center and John worked as a server for a small, but popular restaurant. On top of that, Tiff had to pay a babysitter to come babysit four times a week. On weekends, they would find themselves before the U.S. travel section at Barnes & Nobles. Perusing and musing.

Now, guidebooks like Lonely Planet make for a good read when you're a tourist. But when it comes to moving anywhere, you need some serious one on one time. And not with a book. You need a field grunt. Someone who's been there. Someone who can explain the writing in between the lines of those travel guides. Knowing that I was impassioned with travel, John invited me to meet him at Starbucks and posed the question--if I were in his shoes, where would I move to? Without hesitation, I answered: Thailand.

Why did I chose Thailand? Call it personal preference; arguably, there are tons of equally great places to live. But I knew John and Tiff. They were dreamers. Our previous conversations always centered around fabulous locales and beaches. They were the kind of folk who hadn't been to many places, but that always talked about them. What better than Thailand, that pearl of a place, with its gorgeous beaches and tropical landscapes.

Thailand is also a Mecca of exotic culture and curiosities. Its capital, Bangkok, has some very intriguing temples and sights to see, the friendliest people I've met, both local and expat, and a slew of solid work opportunities. It also bears enough Western influence so as not to completely estrange newcomers. Add to that an electric nightlife that could put any city to shame, massive mega-malls, a vibrant expat community, and you have a pretty convincing argument for moving. What better for John's family?

But before thinking about moving, there were five hurdles.

The Five Hurdles of an International Move:

1. Motive.
Attitude is altitude. Before getting into the mechanics of moving, one really needs to introspect and assess their attitude and, especially, motives. If it has anything to do with sex (and, in this case, Bangkok's sex industry is prevalent), then they may be in for a dish of long term disappointment with a side order of heartbreak and a broken wallet dessert special. Thailand will even be glad to spoon-feed you seconds. But if the right motives are there--to work, discover, and explore--then you're on the right track. Understand that your presence in Thailand is far-reaching. What I mean by this, is that the entire Asian continent from India to Japan is yours to discover both cheaply, and conveniently. How about a thirty dollar flight to Vietnam for a weekend? Try Or maybe a scenic overnight train through Thailand and its neighboring countries might be your fancy? Check out Seat61. As for John and Tiff, one thing was for certain. They were tired of the "how was work?" daily exchange before dozing off on the couch in front of repetitive sitcoms. They struggle and long work hours burned them out. And what more? The boredom! They wanted change. Was that possible? Well, if anything, they had the main ingredient to make it possible. The motive.

2. Ties.
Two days later, I met John again at one of my branch offices. Oops, I mean Starbucks. This time he looked completely worn out and in the dumps. "There's no end in sight." He shook his head. Yes, he had tried business ideas here and there. But everything circled back to his dead-end job and sucky boss. "Have you given Thailand any more thought?" I asked. He looked at me as if I had grown another head. I explained he had no ties that bound him to the States. He and his wife could leave and find work and a good life in Thailand. What more, his family and friends could come visit! "How?" he said. "It's too hard" . I mean, finding a job in Palo Alto, California, when you're in Florida isn't exactly a cakewalk. But Thailand? That was beside the point: they could leave if they wanted to. They had no ill grandmother to tend to or pressing obligations. They had no binding ties.

3. Debt.
Isn't debt somewhat synonymous with a modern lifestyle? The U.S. marketing machine has to be one of the strongest world-wide, the way it entangles our drive to travel (only 30% of Americans have passports, see Those Ties That Bind). "I'd love be in Thailand. Tell me more about it, for the sake of argument," he said. In the case of John and Tiff, they had a new car lease. They used to have an old beater of a car, but soon replaced it with a new one and a new anchor: debt. Now let me just say this, if someone is buried under a massive heap of debt, there isn't much they can do save for pay it down, borrow money from a rich great aunt, rob a bank, or ditch it altogether. The last option isn't an honest one, and I certainly wouldn't recommend it. Considering all, John and Tiff would need to settle their debt. Different car leases call for different terms, but in this case, they would be charged a two thousand dollar penalty for returning the car. Others with more restrictive leases can look at lease transfer companies such as Swapalease.

4. Job.
What kind of work do most expats find in Thailand? Well, that entirely depends on your credentials and I won't cover the swath of industries either, save to tell you that teaching is one of the most prominent and easiest jobs to obtain for native speakers of English. Can you make good money at it? Absolutely. As with any other job, it all depends on your drive, credentials, and what you're willing to negotiate. Having a newborn son, they couldn't take any risks in that department.  Not until they had something secure. "How do I even find a job there?" asked John. We flipped open my laptop, and I navigated to Ajarn, the professional English teaching website. A beautiful layout, a simple interface, and a steady stream of job updates showed at our fingertips. First, they would need a teaching certificate. This was easily found at IH Bangkok, which provides the foremost certificates of teaching English, accredited by the University of Cambridge, called the CELTA. It would cost $1,600 each for a one month intensive course, held in Bangkok. Next, they needed a job. Who thought it could be so easy to find a job doing what you already know?Namely, teaching simple English which is in great demand (especially now, considering the Asean initiative).

5. Housing.
Last, but not least, they needed a place to stay. I advised him to seek housing when he was in Bangkok, not before. They wouldn't know the precise location of their school or university until they were in Bangkok. And although transportation is very convenient, with both an underground metro and an overhead SkyTrain, the last thing they'd want is to get a house one hour away from their jobs. This is the part were pre-planners might feel a little nervous. But what was the cost of housing for the first month while they looked? Four hundred dollars. He could then find a nice, convenient three-bedroom townhouse close to work for about two hundred and fifty dollars a month. Pile on electric, internet, and utilities, and you're looking at another hundred dollars. Three hundred and fifty dollars a month for a beautiful, large townhouse, close to work.

There was a four month period of silence.

I thought John and Tiff were lost in their busy lives and that our conversation was just a means for him to vent. What with the way he described his hectic days, I expected nothing more. But what pleasant news I received by way of email one morning.

They'd done it!

Tiff explained their plans to her parents, that they would most likely be gone for only a year (we'll see about that). Her father then offered to cough up the two thousand dollar penalty for their leased car. In the meantime, John researched kindergarten schools for his son. If they remained longer than a year, they would need one. He found a decent school which charged a reasonable $1,500 per semester.
Over the past four months, they had lived on lean means and saved up $1,600 a piece for the CELTA course AND Tiff had landed a job offer through Ajarn, teaching flight attendants English for a local Thai airline. As for John, he was entertaining two separate offers. In total they would be making $3,500 a month. All they needed was to was present their CELTA certificates, college degrees, and clean FBI background records.

Low salary, you say? The balance lies in the cost of living. With that kind of income, John and Tiff's quality of life in Thailand would be far greater than that in the U.S. They could also save roughly $1,000 per month, live in paradise with their son, and end up saving $12,000 by year's end with a complimentary round-trip ticket back home. This would actually put them in a better situation than they were at back at home.

John followed up his email with a call. He said they had saved some money in case of emergency. His voice had a strong undertone of anxiety. A nervousness I recognized well; the same I had when I first traveled into that great unknown on my own. That fear that lurks in the deep abyss of our reasoning minds. But undoubtedly, their willpower prevailed.

As a banker by trade I can tell you money may be a short-term obstacle, but it is also the greatest excuse. John and Tiff paid a price with the proper currency, not money, but willpower.

And that--that is the true price of paradise.


  1. So true... I know a few people who moved there, but they were mostly single, young guys, so... lol (VERY full of willpower)

  2. That made me laugh. Isn't that the sad truth... well I wasn't referring to them, but instead to the good folk out there who wonder how to take the next step. That big move abroad.