A frugal day in Thailand

I’m a doctor in Upstate NY and an expat in Chang Mai, Northern Thailand. Almost. I’ve been here since November. I expect to live here full time in a year or so.

Chiang Mai from my balcony

First a caveat: a tourist is not an expat. Tourists are impermanent. To the locals, they’re always in a hurry, they’re too eager for excitement, unacculturated, and unconnected. Unless they hook up with a Thai and move to the next level. Expat level.

Most expats have been here for years. They know it all: where to find horseradish, who are the best English-speaking dentists, and that no alcohol is sold between 2 and 5 PM. Like Thai, they put ice in their beer if the ice-cube has a hole – that means it’s made from potable water. Expats have homes and relationships – mostly with other Farangs. They eat out at Farang places. They own cars (or scooters). They live a Thai-style Farang life.

I haven’t quite gotten the Expat badge, but I’m working towards living Thai-style. It’s not easy since I don’t speak Thai, but I’m learning, I’m having a blast, and I’m saving money, which beats working! Thus today’s subject: a frugal day in Thailand.

Legend: an American dollar is about 32 Baht; a kilo is 16 ounces; a liter is a little more than a quart; and 29C is 84F, also the temperature at 10AM. Renting a condo starts at about 5000 baht a month. A Farang is someone who isn’t Asian, to a Thai. It’s not an insult.

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The secret of living well on the cheap is always the market. It’s fun trying to figure out what things are, and what they are for!

I wake up at half-past 4, as usual. It’s cool, dark, and a little smoky. They’re burning the crops in Northern Thailand, Burma, and Laos. It’s the hot, smoky season here. Few tourists, except for the Chinese. The expats who can afford it are gone. To Nepal, Australia, Malaysia, Japan, New Zealand, US, England, or at least south to the beaches.

I’m here.

I drink the cold-brewed coffee I made yesterday. At 460 baht a kilo, it’s about 15 baht/day.

It’s 5PM in New York. I check my Email, Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, Linkedin, and Twitter. Connected, I am. I can call myself a Digital Nomad. Mostly nomad. The internet – great speed – plus TV with a few English- speaking channels is 630 baht/month.

I get to work. I’m working on my third thriller, Poison, while my second, Mercy. is resting before its second draft. The first one, Overdose, came out a couple of months ago.

My husband calls. We skype for an hour. Free.

I watch the news while I eat breakfast. Eggs, tomato, cucumber, bread, bananas. 20 Baht

Time to do the laundry. I take my basket downstairs to the marble-clad, coin-operated laundry center. 40 Baht. I get them going. I’ll be back in an hour.

Messenger: My friend canceled tonight’s wine tasting. Today just became a frugal day.

I recover the laundry and hang it on the balcony.

Back to work. I decide that my killer is a little old lady. I give her a fun background. She likes gardening. I write for a couple of hours.

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One of the many Buddha altars with offerings from the faithful

I need a doctor’s appointment. I decide to walk the three miles to the office and back. It will be my exercise for the day, it’s fun – you never know what you’ll discover – and it’s free.

I stop at my favorite place for lunch. They only serve four dishes, including Khao Soy, a Nothern Thai chicken curry, with boiled AND fried noodles (for crunch,) also pickles, shallots, and lime slices. I throw it all in. No flavor is too much, even if it makes me cry and blow my nose. This spicy piece of heaven is 45 baht. Water, with holy ice, is free.

Khao Soy

I check out the little market in the back. I buy 2 fried chicken legs – 30 baht – 12 small tomatoes – 15 baht – and some green fried things that I can’t name. I’m like that. I’ll try everything. Sometimes it’s good. Sometimes it’s not. Those chicken intestines the other day? Phew! But I’m pretty sure this is a plant. I do plants. Except for the root beer plant. Does it exist? Better if it doesn’t. They offer me rice. I have some, so I decline. I try to buy cucumbers. They choose three and wash them. I tell them I can wash them myself but they don’t care. I take out my money. They wave me away. It’s a gift. Because why not? I bow and thank them in Northern Thai – one of my few Thai skills. They are in awe and still talk about it as I’m gone. 45 Baht.

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Lovely street food. It’s green – on bamboo skewers, wrapped in banana leaves. Comes with a smile – can see it even behind the mask.

I’m sweaty and thirsty. I stop by my favorite coffee shop, attached to a motorcycle shop. It’s cool, it has art and coffee books, AC and free WIFI. My espresso (45 baht) comes with iced water, a duck-shaped cookie and a new lease on life. My 5 baht tip gets me a smile.

My espresso. With duck.

On my way back I stop at Kad Suan Kaw, my favorite supermarket. Huge sale happening. Like the US malls, it has a hundred different shops, restaurants, coffee shops, and massage parlors. I purchase two water guns to drive the pigeons off the balcony, three pairs of sunglasses – I wanted the ones with the American flag but I can’t see through them – and 6 tiny cups to serve dips in. 160 baht in total.

My 20 baht store

I should go home, but I can’t resist. I stop for a no-frills, one hour massage. Common room, no music, no candles, but the masseur finds the nasty spots on my shoulders and gives them a run for my money. Thai massage is like nothing else. We must look like we eloped “50 shades” except that we’re dressed, he’s wearing a mask, and we aren’t pretty. They give me a hot ginger tea and I’m ready to go. I leave a tip. 200 Baht total.

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Walking along the city moat

I stop by my vegetable lady on the way home. I purchase tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, a carrot, a flimsy green thing that she recommends and a pear-shaped object that belongs in my soup, she says. I can’t object, so I buy it.  She throws in some garlic. 70 baht.

I get home. I really, really need a bath. Or a shower. Maybe both. And a drink. I fix my own designer drink – I call it Chiang Mai Cocktail. Thai rum, lime, passion fruit, club soda. Awesome.  A bottle of rum is 274 baht. It should last me a few days. Fruit is cheap. Club soda is 12 baht. 60 Baht for the lot. Aroy! (delicious.) It fights scurvy too.

My Chiang Mai cocktail, the pigeon water guns, and the smoky city.

I work a little more, then microwave dinner. Chicken, the green fried things with a red sweet-hot dipping sauce and some chocolate ice-cream from the freezer. 60 Baht.

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Dinner from today’s shopping. Delicious and low carb.

I turn on the TV. Politics. It hurts to watch. I scroll through the channels. A couple of mostly naked young men kicking each other’s assets. It’s Muay Thai, the national sport. Awesome. I don’t know the rules, so I don’t know who’s winning, but if I was the referee, I’d keep away from these kicking machines. The red one wins. I grab my kindle to read one of my many to-read books – this one on poisons. A few pages later I’m done. I fall asleep in my clean sheets – my housekeeper washed and ironed them for 60 baht.

Day’s total: 790 baht. Just under $25. One could live way cheaper than that – the massage, the espresso, the drink, and the shopping were not necessities. Without those, we are talking 320 baht for the day. Ten bucks.

This was a frugal day in Thailand. My days are frugal more often than not – I don’t love spending money, and I love living Thai. Mostly. Still, when in Chiang Mai….If you want to see an expensive day, tune in next week. On Saturday, I’m going places. Come along!


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Rada Jones MD is an Emergency doctor in Upstate NY, where she lives with her husband Steve and his black deaf cat Paxil. She authored three ER thrillers, OVERDOSE, MERCY, and POISON.



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