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Interview with Ethan – an American expat in Thailand

Updated 9 Oct 2023

Meet Ethan, a 30-year-old digital nomad originally from California. Over the years, he’s embraced the expat life, spending significant time in countries like Indonesia and South Korea. He currently resides in Koh Lanta, Thailand, where he works as a backend engineer in IT, either from his rented home or local coworking spaces. If you’d like to learn more about Ethan’s journey and experiences, you can visit his blog, Nomadically Free.

About Ethan

EthanWhere are you originally from?  
I’m originally from California, US.

What country and city did you move to?
I moved to Koh Lanta, Thailand.

When did you move?
I moved here three weeks ago.

Is this your first expat experience?
No, this is not my first expat experience. I’ve lived in other parts of Asia, such as Indonesia and South Korea.

Did you move here alone or with a spouse/partner or family?
I moved here alone.

Reason for moving?
I’m a digital nomad and have always been drawn to the beauty and diverse cultures of Asia. Koh Lanta, with its serene environment, was an ideal choice for my next destination.

Living in Thailand

What do you enjoy most about Koh Lanta and Thailand in general?
Koh Lanta is a tranquil island with a perfect blend of natural beauty and local culture. The beaches are serene, and the community is welcoming. Thailand, in general, offers a rich cultural experience, delicious cuisine, and an affordable cost of living, which makes it an attractive destination.

Have you had any low points? What do you miss most about home?
Like any expat experience, there are moments of homesickness. Sometimes I miss the familiarity of California, being close to family, and some of the comforts I grew up with. But the adventures and experiences I gain here more than make up for those moments.

What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life here? Did you experience culture shock at all?
Navigating the language barrier has been a challenge, as has adapting to the local customs and etiquette. While I had some previous experience in Asia, each country is unique, and there were moments of culture shock, especially during my first visits to Indonesia and South Korea.

What are your favourite things to do on the weekend? Are there any particular places or experiences you’d recommend to fellow expats?
I love exploring the local beaches, visiting the night markets, and trying out local eateries. For fellow expats, I’d recommend taking a trip to the Mu Koh Lanta National Park and indulging in the local street food.

What’s the cost of living in Thailand compared to home? Are there specific things that are especially expensive or cheap?
The cost of living in Thailand is significantly lower than in California. While imported goods can be a bit pricier, local food, transportation, and housing are much more affordable.

What’s public transport like in your city and across Thailand?

In Koh Lanta, the primary mode of transport is scooters or tuk-tuks. For longer distances, there are ferries and buses. Across Thailand, there’s a more extensive network of buses, trains, and domestic flights, which are reliable and affordable.

What do you think of the healthcare available in Thailand? What should expats expect from local doctors and hospitals?
Thailand is known for its quality healthcare, especially in major cities. While Koh Lanta might not have large hospitals, there are clinics for basic medical needs. For more specialized care, one might need to travel to a bigger city. Generally, expats can expect professional and affordable healthcare services.

What’s the standard of housing like in Koh Lanta? What different options are available?
Housing in Koh Lanta ranges from basic bungalows to more upscale villas. Many expats opt for rented houses or apartments, which are often furnished and come with modern amenities. There are also co-living spaces which are popular among digital nomads.

Are there any areas or suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?
Long Beach and Klong Dao are popular areas among expats due to their proximity to the beach and various amenities. Saladan is also a good choice for those looking to be close to the main shopping and dining areas.

Meeting people and making friends in Thailand

Was meeting people and making friends easy? How did you go about meeting new people?
As a digital nomad, one of the challenges is always establishing new connections in every place I move to. However, in places like Koh Lanta, which is a popular destination for expats and digital nomads, it’s a bit easier. I often meet new people at coworking spaces, local events, and social gatherings. Additionally, joining local expat or digital nomad groups online has been a great way to connect with others and get recommendations.

Have you made friends with locals, or do you mix mainly with other expats? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends with the locals?
I’ve been fortunate to make friends with both locals and expats. While coworking spaces and expat communities naturally lead to meeting fellow expats, I’ve made an effort to engage with the local community by attending local events, dining at local eateries, and learning a bit of the language. For new expats looking to make friends with locals, I’d recommend being open-minded, showing genuine interest in their culture, and taking the initiative to join local groups or classes. Learning a few basic phrases in the local language can also go a long way in building rapport.

Working in Thailand

How easy or difficult was getting a work permit and/or visa? Did you tackle the visa process yourself, or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?
As a digital nomad working in IT, I initially entered Thailand on a tourist visa, which is a common approach many digital nomads take. The visa process for Thailand is relatively straightforward for tourists, and I tackled it myself without the need for an immigration consultant. However, it’s essential to stay updated on visa regulations and ensure that one doesn’t overstay. For a more extended stay or if one is looking to work for a local company, the work permit and visa process can be more involved, and in such cases, consulting with an immigration expert might be beneficial.

What is the economic climate in the city like?
Koh Lanta, being a popular tourist destination, relies heavily on tourism for its economic sustenance. The island has seen steady growth in the number of visitors over the years, which has led to an increase in businesses catering to tourists, including restaurants, hotels, and tour operators. However, like many tourist-centric places, it can have its peak and off-peak seasons, which can impact the local economy.

As a digital nomad, how do you strike a balance between work and leisure?
For me, in a paradise like Koh Lanta, the key has been to set regular work hours, just as I would if I were working from an office back in California. Having a dedicated workspace, such as a coworking space, has been invaluable in creating a clear distinction between ‘work mode’ and ‘leisure mode’. The beauty of this lifestyle, however, is that once my workday concludes, I have the privilege of unwinding in some of the world’s most breathtaking settings.

How does the work culture differ from home?
As I work in IT as a backend engineer, much of my work is done remotely, and the work culture I experience is more influenced by the nature of remote work than the local work culture. However, in general, Thai work culture places a strong emphasis on respect, hierarchy, and collaboration. It’s more relaxed compared to the fast-paced environment of California, but there’s a sense of community and mutual respect that stands out. The concept of “sanuk” (meaning “fun”) is also integral to Thai culture, and this extends to the workplace as well, where there’s an emphasis on enjoying one’s work.

Final thoughts

Any advice you’d like to offer to new arrivals in Thailand?
For those arriving in Thailand, especially in places like Koh Lanta, embracing the local culture is essential. Engaging with the locals, trying out the street food, and participating in local festivities can provide a genuine feel for the place and its people. Learning a few basic phrases in Thai can also be immensely helpful. Even simple greetings like “Sawadee” or expressions of gratitude like “Khob Khun" can build a strong rapport with locals.

It’s also crucial to stay informed about Thailand’s visa regulations, which can be subject to change, to ensure you’re always on the right visa and abiding by the country’s rules.

Respecting local customs is another vital aspect of integrating into Thai society. Whether it’s the practice of taking off shoes before entering a temple or home or understanding that the head is considered the most sacred part of the body in Thai culture, being aware of these customs can enrich your experience in Thailand.

Additionally, with places as naturally beautiful as Koh Lanta, being mindful of the environment is essential. As visitors, it’s our responsibility to be eco-conscious, minimize our use of single-use plastics, and respect the marine life, especially when engaging in activities like diving or snorkelling.

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