(This posting originally published on 23 Feb 2012, with added info on this posting)
Talk to an Expat in Thailand, and they are always telling you about how cheap the cost of living is in Thailand. Medical care, housing, food and a lot of other basics are quite cheap compared to US prices, so everyone can live in Thailand for a lot less than what it takes back home. But not everything is cheaper. Some things are more — substantially more — than back home in the US. People considering moving to the Land of Smiles should be aware of these things and plug this info into their consideration. And if you travel to visit some expat in Thailand, you might think about bringing some of these things on your next trip.
Cars – New cars and used cars are all much more expensive than in the US. For new cars, if they are imported from Japan or Germany or the US or somewhere else, they are slapped with a hefty import tariff that makes them at least a third more than back in the USA, sometimes much higher. My wife and I bought a 2012 Honda CR-V last month in Chiang Mai, and our cost worked out to about USD $47,000. In the US, that car would sell for around $25,000. And this then transcends into the used car market as well. Old clunkers are often more than double than the US price. More foreign manufacturers over the last decade of so have brought assembly plants into Thailand — companies like Toyota, Chevrolet, Honda and others. That should help reduce the cost, but we don’t see it yet in the market. Prices for cars in Thailand are frankly outrageous.
That’s one of the reasons most Thais get around on motor scooters (which are not expensive), or some very weird homemade contraptions. Motor bikes (scooters) are the main transportation here in Chiang Mai and elsewhere in Thailand, and are substantially cheaper than in the US. But a Harley Davidson in Thailand is worth its weight in gold.
Wine – Thailand has its own wine, but frankly it is not very good. I prefer California wines over any in the world, but there are drinkable wines from other places like France and Italy as well (not up to the California level, but pretty good). Foreign wines are hit with a big tariff and are quite expensive in the shops. In the US a bottle that cost me around $12 will probably run about $35+ in Thailand (and even at that pricing, the selection is not great). If you are visiting an expat in Thailand that likes wine, please bring him some. He (we) will be very grateful.
Good Cheeses – you can almost forget about it in Thailand. It’s not in the Thai diet, so it pretty much doesn’t even exist here.
Beef is not a staple of the Thai diet. Most Thais eat fish, chicken and pork for meat, so consequently Beef is a little harder to find, and a bit more expensive. And if it is Thai raised beef, it will also be not as good as back in the USA. Thai cows are a different breed that tend to look skinny out in the fields. Expats here have learned to shy away from what beef there is in Thailand, but I know a fellow that travels about once a month to Bangkok on business, and before he leaves the US, he buys several of those really good looking steaks from Costco to bring to his friends.
Designer Fashion Clothing – clothing with really good brand names are much more expensive in Thailand than elsewhere. It is considered prestigious to have high end brand name clothing, and even if they are manufactured in Asia (some even in Thailand), they will be more expensive in Thailand. Authentic Coach handbags can command at least a third higher than the price in the US.
Good Quality Clothing – the clothing sold in regular stores in Thailand are of poor quality, yet cost the same as better quality clothing in the US. Funny thing is that a lot of those good cloths in the USA are manufactured right here in Thailand, but apparently all goes out as exports. Those bargains for good stuff you might find at the Nordstrom Rack in the US are just not available here, except for a few high end stores that make them much more expensive than back home.
Apple I-Phones and I-Pads – Apple products are prestige items that is are scarce and have a high demand in Thailand. I-Phones and I-Pads especially command premium pricing over the US price.
Cell phone service, however, is much cheaper in Thailand than back home. Internet in Thailand is also cheaper, but it is slower (but in Thailand you are supposed to be more patient).
Lots of Little Things. – When coming here, bring plenty of Gillette Mach III refill razors from the US to last your entire time in Thailand because it costs way too much.
Stupid stuff like shaving cream is also outrageously priced. I just bought a can of Gillette Foamy Shaving Cream at the local Big C Supermarket in Chiang Mai. A 175ml (just under 6 oz.) will cost 145Baht ($4.83 USD). They don’t have bigger cans in Thailand. In Walgrens USA, a can almost twice as big (11 oz.) cost $2.79.
Cheap drugstore level cologne or after shave lotion is priced out of reach in Thailand.
When you come to Thailand to visit your old expat uncle, fill up one of your small suitcases with this stuff. He will be grateful.
Peanut butter – for the PB addict (I are one), good PB is quite pricey in the Land of Smiles. There are no big jars, and the small ones cost much more than the big ones in the US.
Vitamins – these cost about double the US price, and it is impossible to find the large bottles common in supermarkets and Costco and the like in the US. We bring my wife’s mom big plastic bottles of Calcium tablets we pick up in Costco back home and she sells them by the pill to her neighbor friends and makes a tidy profit.
Pizza – first, there are very few places that have good pizza, and those are operated by Italian or American expats. There are franchise shops here like Pizza Hut, but the quality is not up the level as in the US (and that’s not a very high level as it is). One of those tiny “personal pizzas” from a Thailand Pizza Hut will cost 250Baht ($8.33). So don’t be surprised when an expat from Thailand comes back to the US for a visit and one of the first places they want to go has good Chicago style or New York style pizza.
Computer Laptops – in Thailand, it will cost nearly double the price in the US. If you are relocating here, you better buy the newest model back home before you come over.
There are certainly more things in Thailand that are cheaper than in the US than the other way around, but there are some things that are definitely scarce and more costly in the Land of Smiles. These are not “survival” kinds of things, and we can live without most of them, but they do make life easier with them. If you can think of other things to our list, please share them in the comments below.
If an expat becomes more “Thai-like” and sheds their needs for decadent Western things like pizza and good wine, they can absolutely live cheaper. But that task is easier said than done. One thing that makes a difference here is that few expats pay much in the way of Thai taxes. There are no property taxes on an owned home, and the VAT taxes are so low that they are hardly noticeable. For sure, especially when considering housing cost, the financial benefits of living in Thailand does outweigh the higher costs on consumer products we use in the West so much.
But, Bottom Line: never come to Thailand to visit your expat friends empty handed. Please bring us all what we need and cannot get so easily here.