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Interview with Mike – a Canadian expat in Thailand

Updated 28 Aug 2017

Mike is a 35-year-old Canadian who’s tried everything twice. Aside from his 9-to-5, he’s been a volunteer teacher, repeat film extra, jazz festival art director, public speaker, environmental activist, and author on his blog, Hobo with a Laptop. While he currently lives in Cebu, Philippines, he's lived in various places across Asia for the past four years, including Chiang Mai, Thailand.

About Mike

Michael - a Canadian expat in Thailand

Q: Where are you originally from?

A: Originally from Toronto, Canada – although I’ve lived in many different cities across the country, from west to east since the year 2000.

Q: Where are you living now?

A: I am currently living in Cebu, Philippines. Although I’ve spent most of my time over the last 4+ years living in cities like Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Ao Nang, and Koh Phangan in Thailand. For the remainder of this interview, I’ll focus on Chiang Mai.

Q: When did you move to Chiang Mai?

A: I moved to Chiang Mai in late 2014 I believe, and I spent almost two years there, on and off. It was a great home base.

Q: Did you move here alone or with a spouse?

A: I hadn’t met my wife by that time yet, so I was single.

Q: Why did you move; what do you do?

A: I have a three-fold answer for this incredibly loaded question! Why did I leave Canada behind, embrace Chiang Mai, and how did I swing it?

I was driven away from Canada due to the long winters, reliance on cars, the lower buying power of the Canadian dollar, the lack of adventure and ungroomed green spaces.

I was driven to Chiang Mai because of its compact size and how it seemed to be everything the greater Toronto area wasn’t. Great weather, potent purchasing power, wide open spaces, palm trees, and the proliferation of expats from all corners of the globe.

To make ends meet, I started off doing what I did back home – I was an e-commerce specialist serving existing Canadian and American clients remotely. That evolved into copywriting, influencer marketing, and then I decided to try my own hand at becoming an internet influencer myself. I rebooted Hobo with a Laptop in April 2017 and made a concerted effort with my wife to replace all of our other income streams with it. Within a few months, the sponsors came knocking and the rest is in the rear view. Now we help other expats do the same with our content.

Living in Thailand

Q: What do you enjoy most about Chiang Mai? How would you rate the quality of life compared to Canada?

A: I’d rate Chiang Mai as exceptional, and there are few other places like it. World-class hospitals, low cost of living, and you can live very well on a small budget if you want to. It’s a great place to incubate an idea and start something from scratch. I think that’s why it attracts so many "location independent" entrepreneurs, expats, or digital nomads.

And the government has taken notice – Thailand is one of the first countries (besides Estonia) that recognises the digital nomad with their very own travel visa that may also be supported by other ASEAN countries. It’s a bold move to legitimise the movement, as in the past we were never sure if we were breaking the law.

And of course, for me, the main draw of Chiang Mai is the nature and flexibility of being able to rent a motorbike and experience the surrounding area as often as I’d like – or hop on a cheap flight to an island for the weekend. Wherever you go, the locals are so warm and welcoming and that really makes it an amazing place to start one’s life as an expat.

Q: Any negatives? What do you miss most about Canada?

A: I used to miss the convenience of everything. The power rarely fails back home, showers are always hot, the internet is fast, everyone usually understands what you mean with your words, references, or metaphors – and it’s familiar.

And then it’s too familiar. Life isn’t fun anymore. Every day, every relationship, and every experience feels like one big Truman Show.

My last visit home to Canada sealed the deal for me; I simply do not miss it anymore. Everyone feels so depressed, offended – outraged over the smallest things, ungrateful and entitled. I only go back for the people, to pay taxes, and keep my “membership” in the system, just in case.

Don’t get me wrong – Canada is a brilliant place, full of so much love, natural beauty, opportunity, and support. But for me it’s all about timing and calling, and today I feel that I am where I need to be.

If you start to feel negative, stop yourself. It just means that maybe you need a change – and that’s on you – no one is responsible for your happiness but you.

One day when I return I am confident I will have a renewed love for my home country. My sense of home and I are just taking separate vacations.

Q: What are the biggest adjustments you had to make when settling into expat life in Chiang Mai? Did you experience any particular elements of culture shock?

A: I didn’t notice I was suffering culture shock for about a year or so – and then I hit a bottom, my laptop died, I got very sick, work dried up, and then I got depressed. Culture shock is usually a marker for the final phase of the transition into being a long-term expat. After you swallow it, everything becomes easier and a new sense of familiarity grows back to replace the old.

I became self-destructive and everything around me suffered for it. My health was only the beginning.

I got tired of the language barrier. I lost my patience. My laptop died right in the middle of writing my first book. I drank too much, I didn’t take care of myself.

And then one day, I woke up at 4am and sat on my balcony – a front row seat for a particularly beautiful dawn. And by 9am I had a renewed sense of purpose. I found the TCDC, a design library in Chiang Mai where I could finish my book on their computers – I hustled, I finished it, and I earned enough to purchase another laptop after a few weeks.

So if I had one piece of advice for readers – culture shock isn’t too horrible if you take your health seriously. They’re connected. If you feel miserable it just makes everything worse. And abroad, that can really snowball. Love your body so you can love the world around you, too.

Q: What’s the cost of living compared to Canada? What is cheap or expensive in particular?

A: Simply put; electronics aren’t cheaper – that’s a huge misconception among first-time expats in Asia. Sometimes they cost more.

Apples are expensive, citrus is cheap. All those expensive fruits and “exotic” foods you enjoy back home are very cheap in Thailand – it’s like the “upside down” for grocery shopping. The most mundane foods wind up costing more. Mangosteens, mangos, dragon fruit – all incredibly affordable.

Rent is cheap. Generally, life is cheap. I’d say the only area I really felt I paid too much for were the health supplements like probiotics, chlorella, and so on. Everything else is either cheaper, or the same price it was back home. Oh – and beef. All quality beef is imported if it’s any good, and it comes from Australia. It’s not priced much higher than it is in Australia, but it’s really expensive when compared to pork or chicken.

Q: How would you rate the public transport in Chiang Mai? What are the different options? Do you need to own a car?

A: I suggest a motorbike, but no car required. Cars are prohibitive where traffic and narrow streets are concerned.

Public transportation is great. A red truck (simply a pickup truck with benches in the back) can take you anywhere in town and they run frequently. Tuk-tuks are expensive and sometimes shady. Taxis are great to get to the airport, but you’ll often argue over them turning on the meter (or having a meter that is accurate). I never felt stranded anywhere, everything was so close together I’d usually walk unless it was raining.

Q: How would you rate the healthcare in Chiang Mai? Have you had any particularly good/bad experiences with regards to doctors and hospitals? Are there any hospitals you would recommend?

A: The hospitals are world class. At one point I had to do bloodwork, get vaccinated, and even get a CT scan. All very affordable, all very professional.

My only disparaging point is that the quality does vary from one hospital to another – as does their cleanliness. The hospital located near the northwest outer corner of the moat of the old city is one of the best hospitals I’ve ever been to – incredibly efficient.

Q: What are the biggest safety issues facing expats living in Thailand? Are there any areas expats should avoid?

A: Wear a helmet! Don’t wear thong sandals while on a motorbike. I’ve seen some pretty gut-wrenching accidents. Cover up whatever you don’t want peeled off cement later.

When eating street food, don’t be paranoid, but only choose food stands with a high turnover, eat the most popular foods, and you’ll be fine.

Stick with condom brands you trust – sorry for this point, but it’s true and extremely overlooked. Their average condom size is also smaller than the Western average and if you don’t mind the sizing you may wind up with unexpected circumstances.

And of course, get vaccinated, and consider taking anti-parasite medication once per year as a precaution. This is something pet owners often do annually back home, it’s not a big deal. Life happens.

Q: How do you rate the standard of housing in Chiang Mai? What different options are available for expats?

A: Well, if you have a kitchen it will likely be on your balcony. The housing standard is flexible to say the least.

Furnished apartments have all the comforts of home, and the Lanna-style architecture of some places is truly an experience.

Q: Any areas/suburbs you’d recommend for expats to live in?

A: I preferred to live in the Old City most of the time, within the moat. Lanna architecture, temples, narrow streets, and all sorts of little street markets. It was beautiful.

Most first-time expats – namely digital nomads – will find themselves on Nimmanhaemin. Also known as the “Nimman bubble”, it’s a "hi-so" neighbourhood that’s very modern and gentrified but you’ll find all the comforts of home. If that’s what you’re looking for. It’s a very Western-feeling neighbourhood.

Meeting people and making friends in Thailand

Q: How tolerant are the locals of foreigners? Is there any obvious discrimination against particular religions or women.?

A: In Chiang Mai – very tolerant. In other areas of Thailand they’ll have a price written in English, and a lower price written in Thai for the locals. In Chiang Mai this is less common. They’re very welcoming to well-behaved foreigners.

My only strongly-suggested advice is to respect the local dress code. Gents, it’s not a beach town. You may be treated less sincerely in a muscle shirt. Ladies, that goes double for you. It’s a Buddhist majority in Chiang Mai and it’s important to respect their culture as a guest of their country.

Q: Was it easy meeting people and making friends? How did you go about meeting new people?

A: Foreigners are around every corner, so there’s that. The proliferation of digital nomads eager to make friends is great when you’re new there, or you’re beginning to get your own dose of culture shock.

But what’s more is how easy it is to meet the locals. They’ll come to you; they’ll go where foreigners hang out, or you can look for them in hidden places free of foreigners.

In Chiang Mai, integration is the order of the day – they even love their Tinder. Although I haven’t used that in years.

There are differences though; some first dates may include a third wheel of the local’s choosing, like a sister – I once had a lady ask if her mom could come along. “Why not?” is a common motto in Thailand, this is just one area where it applies. Have fun – you may even get invited for some home-cooked meals on a first date.

Making friends with Thai locals is a mutually intriguing experience.

Q: Have you made friends with locals? What advice would you give to new expats looking to make friends? Any social/expat groups you can recommend?

A: Definitely. If I had to guess, 40 percent of my friends were locals. I suggest putting yourself out there and avoiding online groups – you can’t pick up on language barriers or thick accents accurately online. A local with poor typing skills may have a strong command of the spoken language, and vice versa.

If you want to meet foreigners, find a coworking space and you’re in. Easy as that.

About working in Thailand

Q: Did you have a problem getting a visa or work permit? Did you tackle the visa process yourself or did you enlist the services of an immigration consultant?

A: Never had a problem and I never used a consultant. I wrote a 5,000+ word post about the Thailand visa process with a focus on Chiang Mai on my website, so look me up.

Beyond that, my key takeaway is to dress like the kind of foreigner the country wants to have around – if you look like a slob at the border or at immigration, you’re only doing yourself a disservice. I usually wear a crisp button-up shirt, nice pants or shorts on a hot day, and I skip the hat. I believe my older peers would refer to that as your “Sunday best”.

Dressing the part will likely help you avoid having to provide proof of how much money you have with an ATM slip, and quite possibly improve the likelihood of many back-to-back visas and extensions. I spent over 3 years in Thailand. I think I spent no more than a month or two all combined outside of Thailand that entire time.

Q: What’s the economic climate like in Chiang Mai? Do you have any tips for expats looking to find a job there? Which resources did you find most useful?

A: If you do want to work in Thailand, make sure you have the right visa. I cannot stress this enough. If you find a job before you arrive, you’re in a better position to have your employer help you get all the paperwork in order.

There is room for foreigner workers there, it’s just something I was never interested in.

Q: How does the work culture differ from Canada? Do you have any tips for expats doing business in Thailand?

A: Be patient. “Thai time” means what you think it does – things happen when they happen. Don’t get confident about a deal until it’s signed. Thai people are incredibly polite, and you may wind up feeling “led on” when everything seems positive and then comes up bupkis. Roll with it.

Thai people are very interested in change and innovation. Their new Smart Visa is one aspect of this, and their authorities recently met with the creator of Ethereum, a cryptocurrency platform. They do flip-flop now and again though, it is what it is.

All in all, the heart of all Thais are entrepreneurial – and there’s opportunity in that.

Family and children in Thailand

Q: Did your spouse or partner have problems adjusting to their new home? Do you think there are any specific challenges for a trailing spouse?

A: This is another topic I tackle on my blog – nomadic family life. The kids won’t have a problem adapting for too long before it becomes the new normal, and one day soon I’ll know this first-hand – I’ve been up on my research because I don’t think I’ll lose the urge to travel after I have kids.

If adjustment is difficult, move to Nimmanhaemin. It feels Western, and it has so many foreigners you may forget where you are. And make sure your spouse is living clean and healthy. As mentioned earlier, moods are everything when you’re being bombarded with new, unfamiliar experiences.

And lastly, be patient. No ultimatums. Your marriage is more important and if you soil the first experience, you’ve probably soiled them all. Never attach negativity to travel, that will bite you for all time.

I travel with my wife frequently. She loves the outdoors and exploring but some days we feel its best we take a day off, stay inside, or enjoy the swimming pool.

At the slightest hint that mental and emotional batteries need recharging, allow them to do that in a way that is best suited for your partner. And be ready to make sacrifices from time to time. It’s not your show.

Q: Did your children settle in easily? What were the biggest challenges for your children during the move?

A: I don’t have kids yet, but I’ve been told that their sense of home gets transferred from a brick and mortar building to “wherever mommy and daddy are” – or their favorite stuffed animal.

Don’t let them over-accumulate possessions, keep them healthy and happy, and consider sending them to a local school for foreigners. I’ve outlined a few of those on Hobo with a Laptop as well.

And don’t skimp on purchases for anything that touch their skin or mouths, like toys for toddlers and dishes. Many of these products are imported from China and they often have unsafe levels of lead in them. Be mindful of lead and chemicals like BPA.

Q: What are the schools like, any particular suggestions?

A: I’ve only heard positive things about the following schools I list on my blog:

  • Wichai Wittaya Bilingual School

  • American Pacific International School

  • Prem Tinsulanonda International School

I’ve met parents with kids at all of these schools, and these are all referred by real humans I’ve met along my way.

And finally…

Q: Is there any other advice you would like to offer new expat arrivals?

A: Venture outside the Nimman bubble often, have an emergency fund, mind your health, and take time to experience the culture on your own terms; take a cooking class, or self-defence, or a language course, and take part in local festivities like Songkran. Support local businesses and visit the North Gate Jazz Club, if it’s still there.

Don’t ride the elephants, visit a refuge and bathe them instead. Don’t support businesses that promote drugged-up tigers. Do your research to ensure that you’re not harming any living thing with how you choose to spend your money and you won’t feel guilty later in life.

Thanks for reading this far and sincere best of luck, fellow hobo.

– Interviewed in August 2017

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