When considering a move overseas, it’s important to take a serious look at the expat community in prospective new locations.
It doesn’t matter if you choose Panama, Mexico, France, or where I live in Thailand, interaction will occur a lot more with other expats than with locals.
Who are these people? What countries do they come from? What kind of lifestyles to they prefer? What activities and hobbies do they engage in?
Demographic variables like income, gender, marital status, and age could help you decide if you want to live among them or not…
For me, the most important factor is age. I’m 61, and I don’t mind being an old guy. I don’t feel old when I look in the mirror. And, strangely enough, I don’t feel old when I’m among younger people. I do feel old when I’m constantly with old people talking about old stuff. So, I prefer an expat community that is age-diverse.
Here in Thailand, the age profile of expat communities fluctuates from region to region. In Bangkok, the age range is wide because there are so many working expats in the city. There are plenty of multinational corporations operating out of Bangkok with industrial estates clustered all around, so foreigners of all ages can be found. There are also a healthy amount of retirees that find Bangkok a livable city with good public transportation, quality health care, and most importantly, a low cost of living. If you pop in for happy hour at a Bangkok pub, you’re as likely to strike up a conversation with a 30-something engineer as a 70-something retiree.
Finding a social scene that’s age diverse is a little more difficult in a place like Pattaya. If you want to meet a wider range of people, you need to choose activities that appeal to a younger crowd like diving, water sports, or gyms. Golf is the great social equalizer for both men and women. You’ll see players of all ages whacking that little white ball around on the dozens of courses around the Eastern Seaboard.
Expat communities on Thailand’s islands have a completely different complexion, and they’re not all the same. I lived on Phuket for three years, and the expat age range mirrors that of Pattaya, but the economic status is much higher, and there are a lot more expat couples.
Much of that is because one of the main pastimes enjoyed on Phuket is boating of any description. From small catamarans to mega yachts with helipads, Phuket’s two big marinas are featured attractions. If you want to find people with money, follow the big boats.
In the Gulf of Thailand, the picturesque islands of Koh Samui, Koh Phangan, and Koh Tao are within sight of each other but as different as three siblings can be. Koh Samui has a boutique international airport and has been a strong player on the tourism scene in Southeast Asia for a long time. The average age of expats on this island is much younger than on the mainland. Many come on vacation and are making a run at different types of tourism businesses. Digital nomads find Koh Samui an ideal spot with its high-speed internet, co-working spaces, and relatively affordable cost of living.
Naturally, expat populations change in size and demographic makeup over time.
In recent years, some new catalysts have emerged that may radically change who lives where in Southeast Asia. The pandemic froze a lot of travelers in place for an extended amount of time. In Thailand, many visitors on tourist and education visas were allowed to extend their stay for nearly two years. Some made the transition from tourist to reluctant expat. Many adapted to remote working of some kind and became digital nomads.
Last month I was spending time on the idyllic island of Koh Samui. I met a 40-something Englishwoman who had been conducting her successful real estate business from a laptop poolside for the last three months. She had no plans to go home. I met another young woman from The Netherlands in the café at my resort who was designing video games and mobile apps during the morning and learning how to be a yoga instructor in the evening. She’d been touring Southeast Asia for a year and also had no plans of returning to Europe.
What makes these examples interesting is that both were taking advantage of relaxed visas laws due to the pandemic, and both were single women traveling alone. This is clear evidence that the complexion of the expat community in Thailand, and probably all over Southeast Asia, is changing.
What’s more, it looks like the governments of these countries are paying attention and passing new immigration laws to encourage these kinds of demographic shifts. Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam are all kicking around different proposals for special “digital nomad” visas.
Palm Tree Prison
When budding expats are researching possible landing spots, it’s important to understand the makeup of the expat community. But, in this era of rapid change, it may be more important to know what changes are proposed to shape the future.
Countries flirt with and court immigrants from different parts of the world, different economic status, different religions, different cultures. If your research is shallow and limited to pretty pictures and glowing testimonials online, you could end up in a palm tree prison populated with people you don’t like.
Those pictures of Sihanoukville’s beaches in Cambodia don’t show you the massive Chinese casinos hovering in the background. Vietnam’s Na Trang looks like heaven on Earth until you get there and realize everyone speaks Russian.
Expat life could also become tedious if you gravitate towards a place where everyone in the community is your age and looks like you. A little diversity goes a long way.
Do your research, then make a visit to see if your perception matches reality. Until you’re there, boots on the ground, you won’t know.
Full-time Thailand Expat