Saturday, April 17, 2010

Mike on the River Thai

As our oldest has rented his first apartment and has his first full time job, and our youngest is nearing the end of his second year in college, I would have to say we are definitely empty nesters. True, anything can happen and circumstances can change at a moment's notice. But while we'll always have room for them wherever we are, discussions have moved to the next phase of our lives, and where that might lead us.

There are as many possibilities as there are people, which makes it all the more confusing. And you never know who might have an idea which might provide some guidance. So when I heard about Mike and Debbie and their approach, I was more than curious about their story. It took a little doing to make the connection and arrange a chat for one simple reason: their version of retirement was to sell everything they had and move to Thailand.

While the bulk of their personal and professional lives were in the west and southwest, they most recently had spent 5 years in the Washington DC area for Mike's work as an executive with a major corporation. But with their kids grown and Mike looking for a new challenge, when offered a chance to run their office in India he jumped at it. However, in the course of his routine physical before they headed out, heart problems were discovered. That led to a quintuple bypass, which in turn led to a rethinking of priorities.

They decided that what really attracted them to the overseas posting was the overseas part and not the posting. So Mike retired and did extensive research on foreign destinations, focusing on Asia, an area where he had traveled a good deal and spent some time in his youth. Eventually they settled on Chaing Mai, the second largest city in Thailand, in the cooler, less politically volatile northern part of the country. Taking a leap of faith, they sold their house, gave away what they didn't put in storage, packed the maximum allowable 68 pounds of luggage per person and set out for the adventure.

Mike had rented them a serviced apartment to live in till they got the lay of the land. They figured they'd give it a few months: worse case they could move somewhere else. But the more they lived there, the more they liked it. They explored, made friends and starting working with the Foundation for the Education of Rural Children (FERC), a local charity that helps needy kids. Their lives quickly fell together, so much so that just two months later they decided they were there to stay for a while, and rented a 3000 square foot duplex overlooking the city and the Ping River... for just $1100 a month.

As to their daily routine, Mike says every day is an adventure. "Our apartment is an American dimension, but once outside it's totally different." Just walking down the street, buying fruits and vegetables, ordering in a restaurant is a new experience. Even making a pit stop has its moments: "Every rest room has several attendants, and rarely are they men. You're just doing your thing, and 3 women are sweeping around you." And don't even ask Debbie about the challenges of the Asian "toilet."

Still, even with the occasional stressors, like dealing with immigration and driving on the other side of the road, the experience has far exceeded their expectations. "The cost is about 65% of what we were paying in the states," Mike explains. "And with the great surplus we have from inexpensive living, we travel." When I spoke with him, they were just back from a trip on the River Kwai, and were planning a month-long journey with Indian friends into China. And to unwind from those long trips? "Three minutes from our doorstep is a beautiful massage studio, where we get a foot massage or Thai massage or an oil massage for $4.25."

Admittedly, it's a not an approach to retirement that's for everybody. It takes a certain type of personality to throw the key over your shoulder and roll the dice. Mike says before you do anything like it, do your homework, as they did. "Talk to someone who is doing it. There are 100 little tricks: what do I do with mail? What do I do with taxes? How do I set up a phone?" But the rewards are vast. "You have to give yourself the time, wherever you go, to find the beauty. Every corner is new experience, a new dimension. And when you consider the joy we get from helping needy children, while spending our free time figuring out where we'll travel to next, I‘m in a state of bliss."


Marc Wollin of Bedford isn't quite ready to move next door to Mike and Debbie, but he'd love to visit. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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