Cooler and dryer northern latitudes vs. southern
Most expats choose to live in a modern city with countless conveniences such as Bangkok, Pattaya, Chiang Mai, and many other cities, where you can find nearly anything to buy, lots of restaurants, food deliveries, places to explore, good public transportation (of various kinds and extents), and many other expats to socialize with. However, if you don't like crowds, and if a nicer environment is important to you, then you may want to look elsewhere.
Regarding population density, of course there are different grades of modernity, extent of products and services in markets nearby, availability and kinds of public transport, and quality of "environment". There are modern shopping malls in locations spread around Thailand, and a very remarkable variety of chain stores in so many places that Thailand seems to have entered the category of industrialized country in many ways. The main difference is that there are still lots and lots of people and families still living in what would be basic homes by western standards, though quite comfortable for them and what they are accustomed to.
For seaside lovers, Pattaya and its surrounding areas is a most popular choice, though many people are turned off by how crowded it has become, and the heavy duty nightlife ambiance. Phuket, Hua Hin, and Koh Samui have become the next most popular places, as they have lots of expat shopping conveniences, plus many other expats to socialize with, in a much nicer environment and with lower population density. There are many additional places, such as Koh Chang, Rayong, and of course just about anywhere along the seaside, but then you must be willing to live more of the upcountry kind of life discussed later on this page and covered more in depth in other sections.
Regarding mountains, unlike many other countries, Thailand has restrictions as regards land usage and ability to sell, in most of Thailand's mountains. Generally, mountains and tall hills are nature preserves designated as official natural forests, where new people cannot move and live. When they were originally declared off limits for development, the current occupants were usually allowed to stay and typically allowed to register their land with a particular kind of land deed, but they cannot sell it and are restricted in how they can develop and use the land. It can be passed down thru the generations.
There are some areas of exceptions, such as some parts of Koh Samui and Phuket where you can buy and build at elevation, and some other very specific areas for various reasons. Buddhist temples have been permitted to be built on many mountains in normally restricted areas, but without any other surrounding development, and those are normally built with a sensitivity to nature. This is why, in the vast majority of Thailand, you don't see scenic luxury homes or resorts on mountain tops, nor many roads in the mountains, but instead just forest covered, relatively pristine mountains.
Thus, if you want to live in the mountains at elevation, you will not have many options.
There are some parts of Thailand where hilltribe people have lived for many generations, whereby you can drive down a mountain top highway and see lots of homes and communities. Many of those people didn't even become Thai citizens until after the year 2000, and even in the 2020s, I still occasionally encounter people who still do not have Thai citizenship even though they were born there and their families have been there for generations. It's much more unusual than in yesteryears, but it's still here, just to give you an idea about these places.
Some developers with high level local contacts have come in and developed modern resorts in some of those places, only to have the national government later come in and order them taken down and removed, at great loss to the developers. However, local people have been permitted to develop homestays and small resorts in some places in the mountains.
If you have a Thai partner and you want to live in the mountains, or if you want to lease land for 30 years as a foreigner, or even just rent a place for awhile, then you can find a wide variety of places at the base of mountains, including near the entrances of the national parks. Many expats have done this, enjoying the views, having a motorcycle to go in and explore and go hiking, and so on.
If you use a motorcycle in big mountains, then it is best to get a manual transmission and use the gears for braking on long, steep downhills. Many expats have used automatic transmissions and had accidents when their brakes degraded in performance after overheating on a downhill. It can happen suddenly. The same applies to cars, of course.
If you like clean air, then you should be aware that just getting out of a big city may not give you want you need or want. This has been especially so in the northwest near Myanmar, where vast regions of crops are burned seasonally in order to prepare for the next planting, which had left thick smoke over entire regions, to the extent of even closing airports. For example, I have friends in Chiang Mai who have sent me photos of incredibly low visibility, and you can see these things in air quality monitoring stations on the internet. The air can be fine for awhile, but then turn terrible during seasonal burnings.
For many years, the Thai government has been trying to clean up the air by banning fires, organizing standard government trash pickup services, and trying to educate the public, but compliance, enforcement, and implementation of government trash pickup varies a lot from place to place. If you are considering living in a place, and if quality of air is very important to you, then I suggest you research this, look around carefully, and first rent for awhile. Over the years, the sizes and frequency of such fires has gone way down, but it has not been eradicated, whereby some remote locations still have no standard government trash pickup and rely on local burning.
The occasional burning of small piles of natural plant waste usually doesn't bother me much, though I don't like it. However, the burning of plastic trash and various other things is a serious nuisance to me. Usually it's not nearby and/or the wind is blowing it in another direction anyway and/or it's somewhere I'm just passing thru so that I can avoid it. However, you may not want to live in a place where there isn't government trash service and the people are burning all their trash regularly.
The effects on the body of inhaled plastic microparticles is an issue which is still not well understood scientifically. However, we also get microplastic particles from microwaved food, beverages in plastic bottles, and many other sources.
As regards natural plant waste, I have long imagined a potential business of having a shredder/grinder on wheels and powered by gasoline which could turn all that into compost, which could be collected and then sold back as fertilizer and sun shade for dirt to retain moisture. You can find lots of these machines on the internet, but they don't seem to be very popular in Thailand yet. Good ideas are 10 cents a dozen, and what counts is implementation, so if anybody seriously wants to help out, let's talk. (I did similarly in the US, where my parents were raking leaves and putting them into bags for trash pickup, and also buying fertilizer. I got a simple vacuum leaf & small stick sucker and fine shredder, which reduced the waste to a small fraction of its size in bags, and made a compost pile which replaced the fertilizer.)
Quality of Life in Low Population Areas
I like the charm of smaller cities and communities, mainly the human mindsets. There are tradeoffs in shopping conveniences, and mindsets vary on average with population density and local subculture, so you can choose where on that continuum you may want to go. There are major, modern shopping centers in many cities spread around Thailand, and in most places you're usually within half an hour to an hour's drive of major stores.
The quality of local fresh vegetables and fruits is remarkable. It tastes much better, and often has significantly more vitamins than the items which are on the shelves in supermarkets. The supermarkets of course display buzzwords of "fresh"... It is well known that many vegetables and fruits are picked before they are ripe because they must be shipped a long distance, and that vitamins degrade over time.
As regards food, if you need Villa Market or Foodland or Tops, then you'd better take a look at how far you would need to travel to stock up periodically. There are Lotus Superstores and Big C stores in smaller markets, and of course 7-11 and Lotus Express and other convenience stores seemingly all over the place on highways and smaller roads and in little towns. Local markets are often very good, with a wide variety of very fresh vegetables, meats, and fruits, at incredibly low prices. However, the more rural you get, the more difficult it becomes to find restaurants appealing to foreigners, as foods can get very local and spicy. Of course, you can buy things online, such as at Lazada.co.th , and delivery goes just about everywhere in Thailand now, fairly quickly. However, Grab and other such services are another matter.
Small towns tend to have all the necessities, especially home accessories, but you go to local family businesses rather than the big home marts. However, home marts seem to have expanded into lower population areas more than grocery stores carrying many western foods, in many places I have gone.
One thing which has surprised me is the low population of mosquitoes in many rural, agricultural places, compared to cities. Sometimes they seem to be nearly nonexistent. I don't know why, but my best guess is that there are more hosts for them to bite in the countryside, and fewer predators. I think that a main breeding ground of mosquitoes is sewers in the city. However, the countryside has a lot of insects, the vast majority of which are not bothersome, and actually I find all the life fascinating. I hate mosquitoes and biting bugs, and have found rural places remarkably comfortable in this regard. This experience varies from location to location, though, and I've experienced some bad locations.
I have found rural Thailand to be fairly safe. I know many expats who have lived a long time in rural Thailand. Of course, there are thieves nearly everywhere in the world, but where it exists, it tends to be petty theft or stealing small objects, and very unsophisticated. Installation of motion detection lights and security cameras can go a long way in deterrence and peace of mind. I can help with that, as I have installed good quality security cameras with easy monitoring remotely by mobile phone or PC, including intrusion detection alarms and images. These are good for both city and rural locations -- anywhere.
Of course, the cost of living goes down as you choose lower population density areas which have less commercial activity. Many of the locals don't make much money and tend to buy things only locally. The prices of vegetables, fruits, and meats is often astoundingly low in rural markets.
Land prices are also low. Houses can also be a lot less expensive to build using local labor, but you must be much more involved in the design and quality control. Alternatively, there are prefabricated "knock down" houses you can buy whereby you first just make a cement foundation and then they come put the house on top of that. There are also "container" homes made from shipping containers, but I think the prefabricated knock down houses are much better. However, a custom built house may better suit many people.
Electricity, high speed internet, and piped city water has permeated many remote locations, quite remarkably. I know some people in prepper-like environments who also have solar photovoltaic installations and underground or mountain stream water sources, though that's another matter ... Of course, food grows year round in the tropics. Rural areas are a great place to get away to and appreciate the planet and life. You can also see lots of stars in the sky at night. We mammals with mammaries in the Milky Way can look up and wonder ... Whether for your last years on Earth in retirement, or an occasional country getaway, or whatever reason, this might appeal to some people.
I like rural communities. I have been experimenting around with solar photovoltaic power, and have lived in a home before which used solar heated water before, too. If you are interested in any of these things as a potential business, please let me know, as I'm looking for people to work with.
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