I officially moved to Asia in January 2011. For the past 2 months I’ve been hauling ass (and my pack) around Thailand, riding buses and trains, walking beaches and writing constantly. Before that, I lived in Phuket, and taught English, ran an Irish bar and freelanced. Before that, I spent 2 months in Bali, where I did absolutely nothing.
I’ve partied on Bangla Road in Patong (home to ping pong shows and buckets- yes, buckets- of vodka) and silently studied meditation in a Buddhist temple for ten days. I’ve got a permanent scar on the back of my right leg from the burn off of a motorcycle exhaust pipe (a “thai tattoo”); a guarantee that I’ll never forget my time here. After a year here, maneuvering around Thailand feels very easy now. It feels like home. I can speak enough Thai to get a bus or a train to my preferred destination, order food and drinks, and find a pretty cheap room for the night. Then sometimes I look up from my laptop and think, “Jesus. I live in Asia.”
I moved to Asia to see what it was like. But this assignment genuinely got me thinking: Why did I move here, really? Am I glad that I did? Would I really recommend it to someone else? Why?
I love travel. I like the feeling of being on the move. But that’s different from moving somewhere, uprooting your whole life and trying to fit yourself into a new place. Why the hell would anyone want to do that? Well, the reasons to move to Asia are the same reasons we’d consider when moving anywhere. They revolve around the basic human needs for food, shelter, comfort, transportation, as well as the more actualized needs like happiness, love, entertainment and overall satisfaction with life. Now that I’ve been here over a year, think I’ve nailed down some of the top reasons for moving to Asia. In this article I’ll give you the top 5.
1. Get more money mileage
For many places in Asia, the money you earn will go much farther than it would back home. Most goods and services are astoundingly cheap in Asia. Even if you live in a relatively costly place like Singapore, you can still save money by eating cheaply at street stalls. If you choose to live elsewhere in South East Asia, or even many places in China or Korea, prices on basic goods and services will be well below western costs. For example, you can eat dinner (well) in Thailand, Cambodia or Malaysia for about $2-$3, even in a restaurant. Rents will vary, but in the above mentioned countries, as well as Vietnam, Indonesia, India, and Philippines you will pay $100-$300 per month for rent in a moderate place.
Getting around is also inexpensive. Buying or renting a motorbike or scooter is the most popular option, but if you’re hopelessly uncoordinated like me, local buses and trains will do. Nothing wrong with a good long walk either. Bus far can be as cheap as 30 cents in some cities, and even longer distances won’t run you more than $10.
One more perk: flights and bus trips between countries in South East Asia are also very reasonable. On the one hand, this means you can still successfully do business in Singapore, Hong Kong, or Taiwan, for example but live in a cheaper, less developed, quieter country. On the other hand, if you do live in a major city like Bangkok, a trip to the spectacularly beautiful islands in the gulf of Thailand is less than an hour away, and it probably won’t cost you more than $30 to get there.
Electronics and appliances will also generally be much cheaper to buy in Asia, and you can still get the same quality brands you’d buy in the states. One thing that won’t be cheaper is imported foods (and wine.) The overall inexpensiveness of Asia equates to more fun, more money saved and fewer hassles.
2. Taking care of business
Starting a business is an excellent venture in Asia, as many places operate very free economies, and the growth potential in the developing world is nearly limitless. Not only does Asia have the highest population of any continent, recent economic crises (from which Asian banks are beginning to rebound) have made it very appealing to import and export entrepreneurs.
Cities like Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as Kuala Lumpur (capital of Malaysia), are chock full of banking and finance opportunities. Some research estimates that you can double your rate of pay growth in Asia, compared to the States. You will save money on taxes and overhead costs as well. It’s best to do serious research and establish connections before starting any actual ventures. In Asian business, it really is who you know, so get to know lots of people.
3. Weather and climate
The climate in most popular expatriation areas in Asia is bound to be like nothing you’ve experienced if you’re coming from most places in the States or Europe. Let’s assume when talking about “Asia”, we’re referring mostly to Southern and South East Asia, China, Korea and Japan. So I won’t be discussing the Saudi Arabian desert or the Siberian tundra.
The more northern countries (China, Korea, and Japan) will still experience winter as we know it. For South and South East Asia, the climate is much hotter and wetter (some of the time.) In some ways the weather (hot, humid and intermittently rainy, except for the rainy and monsoon seasons, which are just plain rainy) determines the lifestyle. It’s not uncommon to see day laborers snoozing between 12-2, similar to a Spanish siesta. Traffic does tend to slow down to “mildly mental” during a rainstorm. One thing about the rain. It does end. Eventually. And it’s not cold rain like March in New York or November in London. It’s also quite entertaining to observe a true monsoon rain. You simply cannot believe there is enough water in the sky to produce such a massive downpour. So pull up a chair and watch it. That’s what everyone else will be doing.
Regardless of the rain or the intense heat, climate continues to be a big draw for those looking to move to Asia, particularly South East Asia. Yes, it’s hot, but you will acclimatize. And when it isn’t raining, it’s sunny! You can’t help but be in a better mood when the sun is shining.
4. Employment Opportunities
Even if you’re not operating your own business, the financial outlook is still pretty rosy. There is an endless array of ex pat jobs available in Asia. Geographic arbitrage can give you the opportunity to make the same (or a bit less) than you would at home, but save much more. Teaching English is a very popular option, and generally a low stress job, but there are other career choices as well. You can also have a positive impact, particularly in the developing world, by volunteering and working with NGOs. The experience of working in a school, university or volunteer program also adds the extra bonus of getting deeply involved with local communities and families. This is a priceless experience for anyone looking to truly assimilate into an Asian culture.
5. Same same, but different
One of the biggest reasons people move to Asia is to experience a different way of life or a dramatic change of lifestyle. By relocating to the East, you are choosing to place yourself in a wildly different culture, full of new and challenging experiences. Chances are you’ll also meet likeminded (or at least interesting) people
When it comes to living in Asia, food could be its own category, as far as I’m concerned. Not a day goes by where I didn’t wish I had more room in my tummy for an extra meal or two. It’s A-MA-ZING, perhaps even more so because it’s so cheap and so different from cuisine back home.
Life in an Asian country allows many to pursue a long held passion, from diving, mountain climbing, to Muay Thai, culture and art, history, and philanthropy. The frequent festivals and traditions that infuse daily life will astound and entertain you on a weekly basis.
Caveat: Moving to Asia is much different from visiting Asia. Let me tell you a story. I used to manage a bar in Thailand, as I mentioned, so I got to meet many backpackers, older seasoned travelers and quite a few long term resident expats.
Me: “So what are you thinking of doing while you’re here?”
(Aussie, Canadian, German, Danish) Backpacker: “We’re going to Koh Phi Phi tomorrow, and then heading to Koh Tao for some diving. This weekend we’re going to the Full Moon party on Koh Phangnan, and then we’ll party in Bangkok before we head home.”
Me: “So, what are you thinking of doing this weekend?”
My friend: “I’ve got to mark papers/ check the stock index/ clean the hostel/ train my new bar staff. Then I think I’ll just watch some movies or go out to eat.”
Wherever you go, real life goes with you. You still have responsibilities and obligations. But it can be more enjoyable to fulfill them in a warmer, cheaper, more interesting place.
Cultures in the East have an outlook on life that differs from the west. This can be simultaneously refreshing and befuddling. I believe that these differences arise from a mixture of Buddhism and other Eastern religions, a communal world view, and a DIY attitude.
In Thailand we say “mai pen rai”, which roughly translates to “No, matter/ No worries” or “You’re welcome.” “Mai pen rai” is the counterpart to “no worries” in Australia, “No problema” in Mexico, “Hakuna Mattata” in Swahili, and “Sinkankan” in Indonesia. I try to learn the equivalent of this phrase wherever I go. It can be used for everything from indicating that a server keeps the change for a tip, to avoiding a confrontation over a parking space or bus fare. In New York it’s no big deal to swear at someone who cuts you off while driving. In Thailand, you just beep and smile. Conflicts and arguments are usually avoided for the sake of saving “face.” This is a common cultural tradition throughout Asia.
The “mai pen rai” viewpoint can seem strange at first to westerners with a strong sense of righteous indignation. But don’t let it get to you. Whether you “mai pen rai” or not, letting go of preconceived notions about the rules of life can be incredibly liberating. This viewpoint helps you to understand and cope with the impermanence and unpredictability of life. This doesn’t mean that nothing matters and you should blatantly flout cultural or religious traditions wherever you go. It’s just that different things matter depending on where you are in the world. Lest we forget that what goes around comes around, Thais also have another phrase: “Som nam na (Serves you right).”
The intangible “otherness” of far eastern cultures is perhaps the most difficult reason to explain, and yet the most powerful one. This is most profoundly illustrated for me when I am walking through a busy street market, hip hop or dance music is blaring from speakers in a sarong stall, the taxi drivers are shouting “You! You! Where you go?”, and in the midst of the commotion a woman bends gracefully to light incense for a Buddhist offering, creating a tranquil and reverent eye in the storm. Everyone seems to make room for each other, without resentment or anger. It’s also noticeable in the way that everything about life is light hearted and funny. Except the royal family.
Bottom line, either learn to love it or find somewhere else to live. Whenever I encounter long time resident ex pats they have come to a resigned understanding of the fact that they come from another world, and deep inside they love it. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be here.
For all the happy endings, there are an equal number of disaster stories about moving to Asia. I’ll say it’s 80% incompatibility, 20% bad luck. It comes down to whether or not you “feel it.” I’ve felt it in Rome and San Francisco and sometimes in Phuket. I definitely feel it in New York. Maybe I felt it in Kanchanaburi.
This weekend was my first ever trip to Bangkok. I’m a New York City girl, so I’m not easily intimidated by big cities. But Bangkok had me nervous: Crazy traffic, gem scams, insane taxi touts and drunken tourists? Mai aow, khop khun khaa (No thanks).
Would I get lost since all the signs would be in Thai (they weren’t, duh)? Would I get mugged? This is my crazy brain talking. I lived in NYC for 6 years and was never even kind of mugged. And I’ve lived in SE Asia for over a year, but coming to Bangkok made me feel like a novice.
Actually, it’s great here. I like to avoid the tourist nightlife (read: nightmare), but I’ve enjoyed my sunset walks along the Chao Phraya river, taking photos. I’ve had my fill of super cheap food and met some very friendly people, like elsewhere in Thailand. Next I’m off to Laos and then Cambodia and I feel like a complete newbie: new language, food, and culture. It’s exciting and frightening all at the same time.
Perhaps my experience in Bangkok is a good metaphor for life in Asia in general.
Things will be new and somewhat scary, but you get used to them. Perhaps the shine never fully wears off. Despite work and responsibilities, each day you wake up in a foreign country will be different from the day before. Every day there is something new to wonder at, something unexpected that makes you laugh at the world (or yourself.) No matter the reason, and whether or not you decide to stay, moving to Asia from the west will change your life.
Authored By: Chloe Muller