As the North American long weekend holidays for Independence approached, Diane and I quietly celebrated our two year anniversary of expat life in Southeast Asia. Stepping off the plane on Canada Day in 2015, we embarked on a life far removed from Timbits, quality beer and suburban backyard grilling. Radically different from our one year anniversary, this year we’ve waited patiently as the calendar drags off our last 16 days in Penang. Having completed a successful exploratory trip to Chiang Mai where we opened a bank account and found a suburban house in a quiet and picturesque moo-baan, the goal of these last two weeks was secure a single entry 90 day Non-O visa (done), finish packing (almost done), spend the rest of our sadly depleted Malaysian Ringgit that we bought 12% lower than today’s exchange rate (harder than its seems) and close the book on Chapter One of our Overseas Early Retirement Experiment.
Concerned about writing the blog in the Digital Nomad Capital of Asia where I’d be competing with literally thousands of internet generation smart asses that all think they’re Pulitzer Prize winners, many of you pointed out there’s not an awful lot out there from the suburban middle class early retiree crowd. Initial searches prove you’ve all got a good point so to keep the blog mostly free of food reviews, technology and strategies on living like broke backpackers in lieu of working real jobs, I decided on a theme of Suburban Alternatives in the Chiang Mai region. Given the amazing similarities to North American suburbia from single family houses (mostly for rent) to a cornucopia of mega superstores (five good supermarkets compared to Penang’s one pathetically stocked supermarket with serious refrigeration issues), it seems reasonable I won’t run short on stories. Granted the target audience for my little blog becomes quite different in a place with more blogs than Thai people (almost) and I’ll apologize ahead of time for writing more about primers on how to house hunt for age-appropriate neighborhoods than trendy new clubs to hang out in and forty-seven ways to secure a visa when you’ve decided to spend the prime working years away from your homeland in coffee shops with a laptop while avoiding today’s most hated four letter word (work).
So in the spirit of sharing some tips on what we found out about suburban living in Northern Thailand’s most populous province, let’s start with a something you’ve probably not seen anyone talk about. Unlike Malaysia’s relatively straightforward street addresses, understanding where the hell you are by looking at the bottom of a business card or website is a bit daunting. Classified as a unitary state, they divided Thailand into 76 provinces and 1 special administrative division (Bangkok). Simple enough, government in a unitary states acts as a single power where the central government is supreme and administrative districts exercise only the power the central government chooses to delegate. Different from Federalism like the USA, Canada and Australia which combine powers between states and a central government, this means Thailand’s current military government doesn’t need two-thirds or majority approval of provinces for constitutional changes (or pretty much anything else for that matter).
Further subdivided into three administrative levels, an Amphoe (translated as districts) is the second highest level (like a county). Complicating things, a Tambon (township or sub-district) is the third administrative level and there’s 7,255 in Thailand. Finally, the subdistricts are then technically subdivided into administrative villages called Mubans. Translated as a village or hamlet, the word can function on its own or be changed to two words (Moo Baan) when referring to a group of homes. Commonly referred to as gated communities by westerners, there’s actually a method to the madness. The Mu, or groups of homes in a tambon, are given numbers that get entered in sequential order on the books of a register maintained by the district office. The ban, or households for each member of each group are also assigned sequential numbers and registered in the name of the homeowner. Thus, each Moo-Baan uses a map similar to ours as seen in the sidebar picture.
Usually, a street address comprises the two numbers discussed above and the name of the community as the first line followed by the tambon and amphoe on the second line (sometimes they’re spelled out as “Tambon” but often they’re simply abbreviated as “T. xxxx and A.xxxx”). Finally, the postal code and province make up the third line. Thankfully, postal codes are five numerical digits unlike ridiculous British versions with six characters of numbers and letters broken up by a space. (Who the hell remembers 5D3 6X4?). Got it all? Good. It took me the better part of the two weeks to figure it out and searching for homes beforehand is even more confusing without a basic understanding of addresses. For the purposes of house hunting, it’s easiest to narrow down which amphoes you’re interested in and then further identifying the moo baans that pique your interest. Making it even harder, there are lots of houses located outside the gated communities and you can rent those if amenities like 24 hour security, garbage collection, community pools and gyms aren’t high on your priority list. (Don’t ask me to explain how those addresses work). Mind you, every moo baan is different and sadly, many of the ones we looked at offered security even worse than our current Penang condo (meaning they let all cars in without stopping and some didn’t even have gates).
One of the fastest growing metropolitan regions of Thailand, Chiang Mai offers a cornucopia of options for single family housing located in all four quadrants of the city. For purposes of the blog, I’ll only be focusing on the districts we searched in but you should be aware that all areas offer something different from very inexpensive large newer communities chock full of amenities and great for large families (in the Northeastern area) to convenient mountain and airport access (Southwest of the city). Feeling almost like a tropical version of both Calgary (for its mountainous scenery) and the East Bay Hills of San Francisco, we prefer the latter which means we searched in Hang Dong and Mae Hia. Ending up closer to the airport than we ever thought we’d want to be, you’ll need to study flight patterns as you house hunt if noise is a concern (it is for me since I’m an early sleeper compared to Diane’s 1:00 AM bedtime). Oddly, everything west of the 108 (the main north-south artery) fends better for airplane noise despite being geographically close. Strictly speaking, if you hop the fence at the end of our street which is the last one in the moo baan, you can almost jog to the runway and hop on although I highly discourage this and all juvenile high jinks given Thailand’s military government.
Given time constraints and the fact that I’m supposed to be helping pack the kitchen goods today, I’ll return to specific property agents and our experiences with both professionally staffed companies (sorely lacking) and third parties claiming to represent owners that you’ll know nothing about even if you ask them their credentials (way too many of those). For now, I’ll share the name of our agent and tell you that their stellar reputation on Facebook groups is certainly warranted if you’re a middle class westerner that prefers to deal with a company accustomed to prior home owners than twenty soemthings scraping by on digital nomad income. Picking us up on time, showing us exactly what we were looking for and executing a perfectly written and simple to read lease in both English and Thai, we recommend PerfectHomes, a local real estate agency specializing in properties for rent and sale all around Chiang Mai province.
But where and how do you house hunt while still living somewhere else? We didn’t know either but figured we’d need a rental car to check out everything from distances to learning why Thailand has Southeast Asia’s highest motorist death rate (statistically, it’s mostly drunk drivers late at night and really tired public transportation and tourist industry drivers). Never having used anyone besides a name brand rental company at an airport, Diane researched and found that BudgetCatcher is a small (two people actually) but very reliable local company with a rather large fleet of over 35 vehicles. Arranging everything by text ahead of time, they’ll either pick you up at the airport or drop off the car anywhere you want. Renting a reliable Nissan Almira for two weeks cost us a very reasonable 8,400 Baht. Dropping the car off at our serviced apartment the day after we arrived, we gave the very friendly english speaking driver (a young Thai girl) a 5,000 Baht cash deposit which she returned later and paid the full balance by credit card. She even picked us up at 6:30 AM on our departure date and drove us back to the airport in the rental car. Highly recommended, we’ll be using them again when we return this weekend since we need to pass a series of only in Thailand hurdles before we’d able to buy a car.
Finishing today’s brief primer on suburban single family house hunting in Chiang Mai’s outer reaches, let me recommend a superb place to stay if your main intent is finding a place to live in Hang Dong or Mae Hia. About a mile off the main road in the middle of some fields and very local communities not yet party of any moo baans, The New Concept Serviced Apartments offer a perfect blend of comfort and hospitality. Offered as both hotel style serviced apartments in one building and condos for investors in the other, this four-year old development stands out as superior and seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Laid out as a small one bedroom unit with kitchen, living room and bathroom, the furnishings are modern and comfortable and the staff is both helpful and professional.
Catering to any needs you have, they offer shuttles to the weekend walking streets (which we used to avoid parking woes) and a brand new gym was literally just completed the week we arrived. Also building what’s listed as Chiang Mai’s biggest community swimming pool, it’s a construction site at the moment but based on everything else on the property, it looks very promising and the manager tells us its slated for completion in August. Perfect for using as a base for exploring which suburban enclave fits your needs, its central location is perfect for quick access to the old city, airport and major malls. Paying about $650 USD for fifteen nights, we reserved on Agoda way ahead but learned that Chiang Mai is very seasonal and given that it’s very low season, I’m guessing there’s always a room available. Providing maid service and limited but decent free breakfast in a brand spanking new luxurious looking restaurant, we were literally the only customers for 14 of the 15 mornings and we got to know the staff quite well and they treated us like royalty. (They even let us use the gym before the official opening even though it needed no further construction work). I’d recommend the property over an Airbnb if you prefer a bit of pampering and want to avoid the crowds and noise and higher prices closer to the old city.
With someone coming to buy our old monitor on Wednesday I suppose this is the last post form the obsolete old PC with the now unsupported Windows Vista Operating system. Although I did hope to offer some parting words on why Penang turned out to be so wrong for us after about a year I may put that on hold until we get the new computer this weekend. Having served us well enough, the condo still looks good from a scenic viewpoint but between the constant burning, complete lie from Bloomberg about the “success” of a currency that’s coming off a 20 year low versus the USD, very average food and lack of any meaningful activities for relatively young early retired people, its definitively time to get out and move forward. With rumors of an early election from a prime minister apparently cleared of all wrongdoing despite being involved in the world’s largest financial scandal involving public funds, I can’t think of a better time than now to say goodbye and good luck to the people of Malaysia who welcomed us with open arms.