Retirement in Southeast Asia, Reconsidered


Photo Joanne Bretzer: Inle Lake Myanmar

So very tempting. There are places in Asia that tick most of my buttons for the ideal place to retire. Most places range from cheap to cheaper to almost living on air. Superb healthcare is available regionally at a good price. Summer weather prevails, with white sand beaches and blue skies. Ancient temples and culture, cuisine ranging from “interesting” to splendid, including fresh seafood, fruits and vegetables, and in the cities, a knowing way with coffee. Massages everywhere, and not just the “happy ending” type, along with other forms of alternative health care. I haven’t mentioned the people; each country and region has it’s own personality, but overall, I have seldom felt anything but welcomed and well cared for in Southeast Asia. I miss so much about Asia. I always will feel deeply attached to its sights, smells and people.

So tempting, and yet probably not a winner for me in the “where to retire” lottery. What are my reasons for leaning away from it?

First, I would have to say the climate. One very good reason I could love living in SE Asia when I did was because I could always get air-conditioning. I worked in universities with air-con, and lived in housing where it was affordable when I had a salary. But it wasn’t cheap. Vietnam, for example, wisely charges a very higher tariff for electricity used over the minimum household level. It is very cheap if you are poor and just use lightbulbs, a fridge and a stove, and maybe even a washing machine. Get past the basics, and the charges skyrocket. If you love humidity and a fan is all you need, great, but if not, it is an expensive consideration. The months from March to July can be particularly dreadful, and that is a long stretch of hot and miserable.

A primary consideration for retirement is legal residency. In Vietnam and Cambodia, it just isn’t possible to get permanent residency as a retiree except under rare circumstances (marriage, for example). Thailand has long been a magnet for expat retirees, but that is getting harder, legally, under the current military regime. I’ll be posting about the various options in different countries, but for now it suffices to say that there are complexities one must pay attention to in this area. I am not interested in doing visa runs when I am 80, so this is a primary consideration for me.

Having said that health care can be excellent in SE Asia, I mean in some metropolitan areas. Most people I know in Vietnam go to Bangkok for anything serious. I had one friend who was air-lifted there from Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) in the dead of the night for a dreadfully mis-diagnosed condition. I myself have permanent damage to my left leg because I had an injury treated in HCMC. I met a woman at the hospital in Bangkok who had two broken bones (one a tibia) that had been missed by the hospital in Da Nang. I had a broken foot that I was told wasn’t broken at a hospital in Kho Lanta, in the south of Thailand. I have dreamt of retiring in Siem Reap, Cambodia, but serious health care would mean a trip to Bangkok. I was fine going to Bangkok when I was working and had fewer health concerns, but to have to rely on health care in another country, or a far away other part of the country, causes pause.

There is a reason that the glossy expat magazines emphasize the size and nature of the expat community in different areas. You may want to live in a village with locals and learn the language and culture, but you will always be an outsider in some ways. How you are treated and how comfortable you are will to some degree depend on the character of the expat community. I find that, especially in Thailand and Cambodia, but also increasingly in Vietnam, the relationship of older (frankly, old) men and very young women, is disturbing both to the locals and to myself. There is also a lot of drinking, gambling and general mischief-making among a lot of the expats. After a while it becomes like wall-paper, just a back-ground element, but it does affect you, I believe. Then there are the missionaries, high-living NGO people (not all, but too many are living too well to be taken very seriously), poverty-entreprenuers, and generally disrespectful westerners. There, I’ve said it. This point is contentious, but it is how I feel and how I see it.

A huge issue for me is language. I learned phrases wherever I lived, but never did manage much at all in Asian languages. SE Asian languages are tonal, besides being utterly different than Latin-based languages. I always have huge respect and admiration for westerners who tackle Asian languages, but that wasn’t me. I honestly don’t see myself being fluent in any of them, whereas I could imagine that in French, Spanish, Portuguese, or other European based language. I would therefore be a permanent outsider and never really be able to grasp the local culture. Most of my life involves words: reading, writing and manipulating them for fun and work. Being an outsider to the world of words in a place I want to consider home is not an option. What I’m saying now is so utterly inadequate to what I want to communicate and what I feel; even in my own language I can struggle to get across. I don’t want to feel forever alienated in the culture I choose to adopt.

So I think it is sayonara Asia. Hola Latin America.



8 thoughts on “Retirement in Southeast Asia, Reconsidered

  1. Nice post, I think lot of reasons you mentioned here are the same everywhere. I had the same feeling in NZ, even when you are accepted from most people there, there is still someone who comes you asking: “Where is this lovely accent from?” ..subconsciously giving me the feeling that I´m not one of them 😀 But anyway, you can still fight it, if you have family or significant other. Or community like our friends from Philippines, whole families living in NZ. They are expats, but they live their culture there because they created community together.
    Anyway, good luck with searching for a perfect place for retirement. You make me wanna visit SE Asia again 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. Yes, I’ll be back, I hope. I love The Philippines, too. In the end, you can’t be everywhere, so I am forcing myself to finally choose. One thing I love about the Philippines is music and dance, which, of course, abounds in Latin America.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. All of your reasons for not settling in Asia are very good and also you would be so far away from your family that the cost of seeing them would be prohibitive.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post. I hope you succeed in finding the perfect retirement place. Good luck! Keep us updated. 🙂


  4. Wishing you all the best as you research, visit, experiment and eventually settle into the “right” retirement community. For us, having a tiny, relatively inexpensive cabin in the mountains right here in the USA was our solution for a home base. It has allowed us the freedom to travel a good portion of the year, yet can come home, see friends and family, access to very good medical servicesrest and recharge our batteries before heading out again.

    Liked by 1 person

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