Should I move to Thailand? Thoughts after working in Bangkok for a week

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In mid-December, I travelled to Southeast Asia and spent my first week there teleworking out of Bangkok. I also visited my organization’s office in Bangkok several times and had some valuable in-person coffees with Bangkok-based colleagues to learn about their work and lives.

Similar to my trip to Vienna last June, the purpose of this visit was to get a feel for what it’s like to live and work in Bangkok. I am likely taking part in a rotational exercise at work this year, which could mean not only a functional reassignment but also a geographic move to a new duty station.

I had been to Bangkok before, in 2019, but this time I wasn’t playing tourist. I wanted to see the office. I wanted to know what the daily commute would be like. And I wanted to hear from folks first-hand what it was like to live in Thailand as an expat (in particular, an Asian American expat).

All in all, it was an incredibly illuminating experience. Here’s what I learned in a short week.

Size

It goes without saying that Bangkok is absolutely massive compared to Geneva. According to Wikipedia, we’re talking 1,569km2 compared to 15.93km2. It’s literally a hundred times bigger.

I’ve said this before, but Geneva really is a small village. The train station is right in the center of town, and the airport is a 15- or 20-minute bus ride away. I can leave my apartment right now, walk two blocks to the lake, and see my office building on the other side. If I jump on a bus right now and head in literally any direction except northeast, I’ll be in France within 30 minutes.

In Bangkok, I stayed in a busy part of town, near the Nana BTS station. When I took a taxi there from the airport, it took an hour and a half (some of it was due to afternoon traffic). When I left, I took a combination of the BTS and MRT to the airport, and it also took nearly an hour and a half.

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Sukhumvit was popping.

Location

Both countries are in amazing locations for regional travel. Thailand is just a short flight from pretty much any country in Southeast Asia or East Asia, and the airfare can be remarkably low, even if you book flights only days in advance. There’s also a regional train that goes from Bangkok all the way down to Singapore. I didn’t take advantage of it this time, though in hindsight I wish I had.

Switzerland is also in a central part of Europe, which means easy access to lots of countries. You can’t ask for better neighbors than France, Germany, Italy, Austria and Liechtenstein. When I first moved here in 2019, I thought I would be doing at least two train trips a month, and at least one international trip every month. In reality, I travel a lot less than that, due to a combination of 1) Covid restrictions for most of my time here, 2) my struggles with chronic fatigue, and 3) the simple fact that it’s not sustainable to spend this much money on travel.

Public transportation

You can’t talk about transportation in Bangkok without talking about the traffic. It was — without hyperbole — a nightmare. I was frequently late for appointments there because a trip that was supposed to take 30 minutes would end up taking two hours. It didn’t even matter what time of day it was. You would just sit there in traffic and not move.

The bus schedule was nonexistent. Google Maps would say that a bus was supposed to come every 10 minutes, and I would stand there and wait for 30 minutes before one showed up. This was, of course, because the buses were stuck in traffic like everyone else. There is also a boat bus, which I enjoyed taking the last time I was in Bangkok, but I didn’t get the chance this time.

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The boat bus — also a great way to get out of traffic.

By comparison, the BTS and MRT trains are a delight because they arrive frequently and don’t get stuck in traffic. The BTS was kind of a hit-or-miss experience; I was on one at noon one day, and it was so crowded that new people couldn’t even get on. Another day at 5pm, which was supposed to be rush hour, almost no one was on the train.

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Onboard the BTS.

In Bangkok, the office was tricky to get to in terms of public transportation. Even though it was in the same neighborhood as all kinds of important government buildings, it wasn’t close to any BTS or MRT station, and the buses were extremely unreliable. (Someone told me I could call a Grab bike and ride on the back of a stranger’s scooter, but that was way out of my comfort zone.) I stayed at a hotel that was a 18-minute walk away, because that was the only way I could get to my meetings on time — on foot. I almost got hit by someone on an electric scooter who ran a red light, just a few meters outside the office.

Meanwhile, in Geneva, I’m not too happy with my commute, either. I live about 3 miles from the office and have to take two buses to get there, which can often take up to an hour. The city is too small to justify having a full-fledged subway system. I’ve been trying to move for a few months now, but since I only have less than a year left on my current work contract, I’ve been turned down for not being “stable” enough on paper.

That said, at least traffic isn’t a huge issue for us here, and the city is very pedestrian-friendly. In much of Bangkok, sidewalks are either completely missing or taken over by scooters and food vendors. You’d have to be nuts to attempt walking any significant distance over there. If I lived in Bangkok, I’d probably buy or rent a scooter for myself — might as well join in on the madness.

Language

One thing that makes me needlessly nervous when I’m travelling in Asia is when I’m in a country where I don’t speak the local language, but of course I look Asian, so I’m frequently apologizing for not understanding people and attempting to get them to switch to English.

In Thailand and Vietnam, I’ve found that I don’t visually blend in as a local. People can tell I’m a tourist very easily, and there were constant stares everywhere I went — I assume this is because I don’t dress as conservatively as the locals and am comfortable showing my legs, arms and shoulders. I was frequently asked if I was from Japan (???). In Malaysia and Singapore, however, I was able to blend in seamlessly without a second glance from anyone.

Anyway, back to languages. At my organization’s Bangkok office, the working language is English. Knowledge of Thai is not expected or required in the workplace. Most people I spoke to said that they knew enough Thai for basic day-to-day communication, but did not speak the language beyond the beginner level. As a tourist, I was able to navigate pretty much everything with English only — buses, restaurants, malls, etc.

In Geneva, even though most people can at least speak elementary English, it is still very important to know French. Regardless of what you look like, shops, restaurants and customer service will assume you speak French by default and greet you accordingly. At my workplace, if you can’t converse in French, you literally can’t build any sort of meaningful, trusting relationship with half of your colleagues. There are some expats I know who haven’t bothered to learn French despite living here for years, citing “busy work schedules”, but I believe they’re in the minority.

Cost of living

While inflation is definitely an issue in many countries, the cost of living in Thailand is still significantly lower than Western Europe. My colleague told me that he lived in a one-bedroom apartment in a luxury building with a rooftop infinity pool for the equivalent of USD 400/month. Meanwhile, I live in a one-bedroom apartment in an ancient building with no infinity pool for about USD 2200/month.

Of course, this also means that I make way more money than he does. This isn’t meant as shade. Everyone at my organization makes a standard base salary that’s calculated using our level of education and years of experience, and then we also get an additional post adjustment to account for cost of living at our duty station. My post adjustment is much higher than his because I live in Switzerland. And it’s getting more and more expensive to live here.

I’m not a particularly financially literate person; I’m not very sensitive to fluctuations in prices, and I’ve tried and failed many times in the past to make and stick to a budget. Even I have noticed that prices have increased in the last year, from services to restaurants to grocery stores to train tickets. In Geneva, I don’t really go out to restaurants to eat anymore, because a single meal will easily cost 30-50 francs per person — and that’s without alcohol. My friends and I usually just get a coffee and a pastry at a cafe, or we’ll meet for tea at one of our homes.

When I’m travelling in Southeast Asia, I can afford to eat wonderful, filling meals and stay at super nice hotels for a fraction of what it would cost in Europe. It’s like this temporary jaunt into a mirage of luxury before being jolted back into reality, which is signs hung up in my apartment building begging us to turn down heating this winter and sitting on buses for two hours each day and a crappy to-go meal at the supermarket that now costs 19 francs compared to 14 francs the year before.

Does money simply go further in Thailand? If that means being able to afford an apartment with an infinity pool on an entry-level salary, then I’d say yes.

Environment

I wrote about this in detail in my earlier post about feeling overwhelmed in Southeast Asia, but to summarize: as someone who has sensory issues and who can find it difficult to deal with a lot of noise and activity, being in Bangkok can be challenging.

Bangkok is such a large and diverse city that I don’t want to over-generalize and apply the same label to all neighborhoods. When I first visited in 2019, I stayed within walking distance of Khao San Road and thought it was all right. I also stayed at a guesthouse that was right next to the Phan Fa Li Lat pier, and I loved being right there on the river.

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So bummed that this guesthouse seems to have closed, likely due to Covid.

This time, I stayed in the heart of the popular Sukhumvit neighborhood and didn’t like it at all: it was Tourist Trap Central, with a ton of extremely overpriced western restaurants, rude and entitled tourists, barely usable sidewalks, and constant solicitations from taxi and tuk-tuk drivers.

On the other end of the spectrum, I also stayed near the office, which was not a touristy area at all. One night at 7pm, I tried to go outside to find dinner, and all the streets around me were dark and empty, the storefronts all closed. Google Maps showed that the closest restaurant was only two blocks away; I walked half a block, came upon a street that was empty except for two men hanging out on motorbikes and staring at me, and immediately turned back and walked back to my hotel. Yes, I know Thailand is relatively safe. But I trust my gut no matter what.

The last hotel I stayed at was near the National Stadium BTS station, just a brief walk from some of the biggest malls: Siam Discovery, Siam Paragon, and centralwOrld with the mysteriously capitalized O (which was my favorite). It was also right next to Jim Thompson House and the river. This was by far my favorite part of Bangkok: very central, crowded but not chaotic, tons of shops, a gazillion food options, excellent sidewalks. In general, it just felt very safe.

In Geneva… well, we have our small village. We have our weird Soviet-inspired apartment buildings. We have a lake and small, fake beach. And you can see the snow-capped mountains in the background. Summers here are beautiful, but winters are long, and the sky is basically grey and overcast from October to March every year. I do love the year-round tropical climate in Southeast Asia — there’s nothing like hanging out in a tank top and shorts, getting a beautiful tan, while it’s snowing backing home.

The last thing I want to mention is air pollution. The air quality is not good in major Asian cities. When I was in Bangkok and Hanoi, I had a small, lingering cough, not because of Covid, but because I was sensitive to the air. I’ve noticed that a lot of people wear masks while they’re commuting by scooter for this reason. Dust particles would also get into my eyes and irritate my contacts. Asthma runs in my family, so poor air quality is something that concerns me.

Career opportunities

Bangkok is the regional hub for my organization’s activities in Asia, just as Geneva is for us in Europe. I noted a lot of similarities between the two duty stations. A lot of the work revolves around organizing conferences and meetings and events. However, Bangkok has a lot more job opportunities for people who want to work on economic and social affairs, so it has a leg up over both Geneva and Vienna in this aspect.

I also observed that my colleagues in Bangkok seemed to be pretty relaxed and chill. (I wonder if that’s a direct effect of the nice weather.) In general, people seemed to be satisfied with what they were doing, and they were content with living in Bangkok. A lot of people talked about how nice it was to be able to travel easily to other countries in Asia, now that the region has opened up.

I will say, though, that I didn’t “vibe” with people in Bangkok the way I did when I went to Vienna. In Geneva and Vienna, I’ve met a surprisingly large number of people who are very similar to me: open, candid, curious, comfortable talking about struggles and failure, maybe a little weird, maybe a little neurodivergent. And this is people of all kinds of ages, genders, races, nationalities.

In the office at Bangkok, with a few exceptions, I more or less got the sense that people wanted me to perceive that they were very smart and happy and had great jobs and great personal lives. Which isn’t a criticism. It’s just to say that people are different. I met someone in person whom I’d previously considered applying to work for, and after that conversation, I felt drained and flustered and embarrassed. It was clear that we had not “vibed”, and I could not see us working well together. It was a reminder to myself, too, that I can’t just apply the same model of conversation and connection that I use to everyone; that people communicate differently, and I need to respect that and adapt to it.

Quality of life

This is a really hard one to compare because the two cities are so different. It really depends on what you value personally.

For instance, the food and shopping options in Bangkok are incredible. I have no doubt that you can find anything you need there, at mostly very reasonable prices. These are things that definitely matter a lot to me, and they are not currently very accessible to me in Geneva without paying an arm and a leg.

On the other hand, if you dislike traffic and inconsistent public transportation and just general urban density and chaos, Bangkok would be a tough one. Geneva is extraordinarily calm, quiet, and relaxing by comparison.

In Bangkok, it seems that with an expat salary, you can have a very, very nice life. You can have the luxury apartment, and you can eat out every day, and you can take a taxi for two bucks, and you can go to a spa any time, and you can also hop on a plane and be on a tropical island in two hours. Meanwhile, in Geneva, I cook all my meals at home, take the bus everywhere, hang dry my laundry in my bedroom, and save up my money towards taking trips to places like Bangkok.

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Jim Thompson House: an oasis in the city.

Conclusion

I came away from Bangkok with the impression that it was not the right fit for me. Given how I felt during the week I was there — overstimulated, anxious, self-conscious and intensely lonely — I’m not sure how I would fare living there long-term.

However, I would still love to live in Southeast Asia at some point. My current goal is to take a sabbatical in a few years and try to find a temporary post in Singapore. Can I make that happen? Will my plans change again? Who knows! Just taking life one day at a time.

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