Are American Expats in Thailand truly “Free”?

US and Thai flagAsk any group of American expats why they like living in Thailand and one of the answers that is sure to come up is that they believe there is much more freedom for them in Thailand than back in their home country.  On the surface, that answer seems to be a total misconception on their part; how can one leave a democratic republic, the “Land of the Free…”, to come to a Kingdom with ancient customs that restrict what people can do, and still think they have arrived to a place with more “Freedom”?  This is a question that I have pondered for a long time.


First, is America a “Free Country”?  It does have an amazing constitution with protections for citizens in so many ways that define the very essence of freedom.  In America, citizens are allowed free speech, free choice of religion, weapons for personal protection, protection against unreasonable police action and many more protections.  That constitution also limits the power the US government has towards its citizens, making it illegal for those in political power to abuse their constituents in any way.  It’s not a perfect document, of course, since it also has an amendment that allows the government to arbitrarily confiscate assets and income from their citizens to enforce their policies, many of which were not decided upon directly by the people.  But on paper, America is truly a Free Country, and that’s the perception I had all the time I was in school preparing myself to become a producing member of the American citizenry.  After all, every single elected government leader and every single military man swears to God (the most solemn oath possible) that he will always support and defend the laws in that document.  The principals embodied in this supreme law of the land is beautiful, and as a young military veteran involved in a foreign conflict many years ago, I too swore to God to always defend and protect it.  The Constitution is why I will always love the concept of a free America.

As an adult, like so many other Americans, I found that the reality is quite different.  I believe that every single protection afforded us in the constitution by the Bill of Rights is now regularly violated by the US government. 

My Dear Mom, God Bless her Heart, used to ask me many times before she passed on, “Why would anyone lucky enough to be born in the greatest country in the world, the United States of America, ever chose to move to the other side of the world and live in a little dumpy third world country?  People everywhere are trying to break down the door to get into this country, and you’re leaving to live is some primitive place where people live in grass shacks and work in rice fields all day…”  My Mom, like so many Americans lived a long life never having a passport, never traveling outside of the protection of what she knew to be the greatest nation on Earth.  And I would never be one to argue with my Mom or any other American with this thinking about the craziness of my move to Southeast Asia.

There is no freedom of speech in America today; if I have some radical ideas about something (and I do have a few radical ideas), I am often not allowed to express them.  American citizens are constantly barraged by the State with no probable cause (just think of TSA as one of thousands of examples or our personal communications monitored by the NSA).  Presidents and Congressmen have no problem blatantly lying to citizens and forcing laws on them covering every tiny aspect of life so that these political elites can enjoy privileges given to them from the wealthy.  Most of these laws the rulers of the US impose are not allowed under the document that they swore to defend and protect.  The reality is that America is the antithesis of a Free Country, in spite of having a constitution of protections.  This realization has been a great disappointment to me and so many others in the US, and we are searching for a better place in this world where there truly is personal freedom.  (In America, am I free to even say these things?)

But how can we consider Thailand to be a Free Country?  Unlike America, Thailand has a monarchy that has the final word on everything (fortunately, the monarchy in Thailand has always had the best interests of their people in all that they do; they have no need to garner greater power).  Thailand has a relatively strong military that over the last century has taken over the government several times.  There is no Bill of Rights to give each person individual protections that the United States of America has always had.  How can it be considered as a place freer for American expats — people that are not even citizens of Thailand?

Thailand culture has a “live and let live” attitude.  The predominate religion, Buddhism, is not judgmental, and does not condemn actions outright that are outside of the norm.  While Thais don’t appreciate deviate behavior and will not condone it, Thais will tolerate it.  In Thailand, you have the freedom to be eccentric.

Since the first Western traders from Europe arrived in Thailand some 500 years ago, Thai people have considered farangs — foreigners — to be a bit nutty, but as long as that nuttiness does not infringe on their life, they let the farangs do what they want to do.  Fortunately, Thailand was never conquered by a colonial power like every other Asian country, so there is no deep seated resentment against Westerners as oppressive invaders.

American expats are not allowed to buy property in Thailand, and they are not allowed to work in almost every profession (there is a very small list of jobs allowed for expats).  All non-Thai residents must periodically report to Thai immigration to report where they live and what they are doing.  Some forms of resident visas require expats to maintain bank accounts having a certain amount of money.  No one, including expats, is allowed to criticize certain elements of the leadership (the royal family) in any way.  Expats are not allowed to have a majority ownership in a business in Thailand.  So how is this place more free for Americans that have come here?

The answer is that in reality the expats are pretty much left alone.  There is no “Big Brother” watching them, telling them what they can or cannot eat, how they must behave (within the limits of not harming others), no unwarranted police searches and abuses, and no great restrictions on what they say (within minimal limits).  So, like America, the reality of the situation is different than what it appears to be like on paper.  The reality of everyday life in Thailand for an American expat is of freedom of movement, of expression and of most actions.

In Thailand, almost no one fears a SWAT team breaking down their door, killing their dog and harming their children.  In America, this is becoming almost common in neighborhoods across the country.  In Thailand, almost no one fears their tax agencies destroying their lives and confiscating their worldly possessions.  In America, everyone fears the IRS, which will seize incomes, bank accounts and possessions on a foundation of only suspicion.  In America, the IRS works on the foundation of “guilty till proven innocent.”

For me personally, the individual freedom I have found in Thailand has also given me freedom from stress, which has resulted in a happier, healthier life.

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8 thoughts on “Are American Expats in Thailand truly “Free”?

  1. As usual another excellent and insightful article. I lived in New York 5 years as a VP in an international company. After just avoiding been sued by the Pizzahut boy for ‘nearly’ slipping on my driveway, I realized that there was actually less freedom in the US than it appears as peoples rights over-ride common sense. Not to mention the intrusiveness of government into all aspects of people’s lives. Here the crazy rules are always there, but there is a legal way around most things, so there is more freedom in practice.

  2. Great article and well said. I couldn’t agree more. Since coming to Thailand several months ago I’ve found it to be a MUCH less stressful place than back in the US.

  3. “The Constitution is why I will always love the concept of a free America.”

    This is how I felt & also why I wanted Ron Paul who would truly defend that Constitution if he was elected.

    Once I saw that once again he would be ignored, left out of debates & basically misrepresented in so many ways by the press I knew it was time to leave.

    I really felt he was the last hope for the US & if he had gotten a fair shake I think I probably would have stayed, looked forward to a repair of the economy & the restoration of the Constitution.

    Today America has the Patriot Act. Created during Bush’s term on the 26th October 2001 & extended by Obama along with the National State of Emergencey it allows them to side step the Constitution.
    No more rights to a speedy trial you can now be held forever without one.
    No more Habeas Corpus.
    They can basically do anything they want as long as they use the magic word
    TERROR or Terrorist/Terrorism.

    America was put under a National State Of Emergency after the 9/11 2001 Air plane hijack attack.
    It has remained under this state of emergency ever since. Why? Because it affords side stepping of the Constitution.
    But where is the “real” threat to keep this state of emergency active 12 years later?

    What does it mean?
    The Washington Times wrote on September 18, 2001:
    “Simply by proclaiming a national emergency on Friday, President Bush activated some 500 dormant legal provisions, including those allowing him to impose censorship and martial law.”

    If freedom is just another word for nothing left to loose than the US is very close to being free

  4. I love the US and the Constitution but I agree, I feel much more free living in Thailand. I pray that American gets back on the right track but I’m afraid that political correctness will never allow it.

  5. This is troubling to me, that property rights are so poorly respected in Thailand. I’ve earned what little money I have honestly. Suppose I wanted to come to Thailand and purchase a little farm from a person who also came by the farm in an honest way. If we agree on the price, who has the right to stop us? Not the Thai government, not even the Almighty himself! What’s freedom without property? The property owner sets the rules on his or her property. So if I can’t even own my own home, I have to submit to someone else’s arbitrary authority. I can’t own a business? I have to be junior partner to someone and let them destroy my little capital without being able to do anything about it since they own 51%?

    Is Thailand freer than the US? No doubt. But that’s in spite of, not because of, the way their country is set up. It’d more correct for them to treat their government with suspicion and contempt.

    [edit: references to the royal family taken out of this post comment. A subject that needs to be avoided here.]

    • Dear Editor,

      I see that you’ve changed my post a little. You have every right to do so. I’m only a guest on your virtual property, after all. I don’t want to make myself obnoxious. But can I ask? You deleted references to certain people. Do you have such great respect and reverence for these people and want to avoid disrespecting them, or are you fearful of something?

      I ask because I’m considering moving out of the US to someplace else, maybe to Thailand, and I want to avoid places where I have to be afraid. In the US I’m afraid of many things, but discussing people – anyone – is not one of them.

      Thank you.

      • Not afraid, but Thai people are easily offended by any reference in that area by foreigners, which is often interpreted as negative, even if that was not the intent. The best road to take here is simply avoid that subject, unless it is so obviously high praise. I am a guest in the country and have to treat those here with as much respect as possible.

        • I’m learning a lot about Thailand from you, thank you very much. I’m the sort of person who values ideas over social conventions and I have a problem with authority. In other words, if I disagree with a custom or a ritual I’m not going to feel shy about expressing what I view as an imperfection. And I would view that as a favor I’m doing people, a sort of constructive criticism.
          If I do decide to move to Thailand I guess I’ll have to learn to keep my mouth shut…

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