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A Low-Cost Retirement Spot in Asia

Kathleen Peddicord

The Thai city of Chiang Mai has long lured expats from the West. As many as 40,000 foreigners currently call Chiang Mai home, at least part of the year. The primary draw is the cost of living and medical care. Both are a global bargain. In addition, Chiang Mai boasts a more temperate climate than much of the rest of this country, as well as modern infrastructure and an abundance of Western amenities.

Thailand has had its share of political unrest in recent years, but Chiang Mai has been largely unaffected. Politics aside, Thailand is the land of smiles. The gentle, unfailingly polite locals endear visitors and welcome foreign retirees.

Located about 435 miles north of Bangkok, Chiang Mai is nestled in a fertile river valley surrounded by mountains. It's an area rich in history with a culture distinctly different from that in central and southern Thailand. With a population of about 250,000, the city dates back more than 700 years and was originally walled.

The Old City was an integral market and manufacturing center on the busy trade routes between Yunnan province in southern China and the port cities of Burma, where goods traveled to and from the trade centers of India and beyond. Many crafts and raw materials were made and traded here and then distributed throughout the region. Beautiful sculptures, pottery, woodcarvings, silver jewelry, and fabrics continue to be manufactured here. However, tourism has since replaced commercial trade as the major source of revenue.

The heart of Chiang Mai lies within its old city walls, where dozens of ancient and modern Buddhist temples coexist alongside public and international schools and residential and commercial neighborhoods. Street markets and festivals occur almost nightly, and there's a great array of restaurants catering to all tastes. For these reasons, many expats choose to live in the center of the city, within the ancient walls, where they also enjoy affordable rentals and close proximity to all services.

Chiang Mai has grown beyond the ancient walls, and now extends for several miles in every direction. Large shopping complexes are located along a superhighway and a multi-lane, controlled-access ring road that circles the outskirts of the city. Mega-malls and big multinational grocery and department stores line the superhighway access roads, creating many shopping options for retirees.

Upscale neighborhoods include the area north of the Mae Ping River, which is popular among affluent foreigners. Another well-regarded area among expats is the neighborhood around Thanon Nimmanhemin and Thanon Huay Kaew, where you can find housing in all price ranges. Located a short taxi ride or a 20-minute walk west of the Old City, this area has dozens of popular restaurants and nightclubs, modern shopping malls, and excellent medical facilities.

Chiang Mai has a far more pleasant climate than most of the rest of the country. While the weather in Bangkok is hot and steamy year-round, Chiang Mai has a cool season. In December through the end of February midday temperatures are generally in the low or mid-80s, and evening temperatures can drop down to the mid-50s. The hot season lasts from mid-March until June. During this period, temperatures often exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Although the humidity can be high, precipitation is scarce. Adding to the discomfort, many farmers choose this time of year to burn their fields, and the air can get very smoky. Fortunately, air conditioning and ice-cold drinks are available throughout the city. Still, many expats and foreign retirees living here plan annual getaways in March to escape the heat and pollution.

The cost of living in Chiang Mai is reasonable, largely because the cost of housing can be a bargain. A retired couple could live here comfortably on a budget of as little as $1,000 to $1,200 per month. You could rent a furnished studio apartment in a nice area for as little as $300 per month. A bigger, better appointed place might rent for $500 per month.

Another important attraction to Thailand and especially Chiang Mai is the standard and cost of medical care. Thailand has become an important medical tourism destination. Medical tourists sometimes find it much less expensive to fly to Thailand and receive treatment than to have the same procedures performed in their home countries, even allowing for the cost of international travel. You can see an English-speaking doctor for as little as $20. More serious care also can cost a fraction of what it would in the U.S. A heart bypass, for example, that might cost more than $100,000 in the U.S., costs only $10,000 in Thailand. A total hip replacement in Thailand costs around $11,000, while the same procedure in the U.S. can cost seven times as much.

Retiree Paul Richard considered many options in Thailand, including Samui, Phuket, and Hua Hin. He chose Chiang Mai over those other places because of its climate and "the people seemed a lot friendlier and more helpful" than in other areas he visited. Richard also likes that Chiang Mai is home to such an established community of fellow foreign retirees. "Chiang Mai has every type of leisure activity you could want from golf, tennis, and bowling to plenty of good Western restaurants and the Chiang Mai Expats Club," he says.

The Chiang Mai Expats Club, with 650 members, is one of the best ways to become acquainted with this city and to tap into the experience of retirees already living in the area. You could also meet new people at a Lions Club, a Scandinavian Club, an Alliance Française, a Writers Group, a Flying Club, a Radio Amateur Society, and a Rotary Club.

Kathleen Peddicord is the founder of the Live and Invest Overseas publishing group. With more than 25 years experience covering this beat, Kathleen reports daily on current opportunities for living, retiring, and investing overseas in her free e-letter. Her book, How To Retire Overseas--Everything You Need To Know To Live Well Abroad For Less, was recently released by Penguin Books.

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