Falling in love with Chiang Rai
One of my favourite things to do in Chiang Rai, especially if I have visitors or we have a special occasion to celebrate, is to hire a boat and take the hour-long ride up the Kok River to My Dream Guest House where we sit on a rickety old terrace looking over the river and have a long, slow lunch of great Thai food at a great price. You see a different side of Chiang Rai; you get out of the city, you get to see the interesting houses on the river.”
After eight years in Thailand Angie Ubosot-Ahern still has the enthusiasm for her adoptive country that she had when she arrived from Brisbane in 2009.
“I came to Chiang Rai in my mid-40s as a volunteer for the International Humanity Foundation because it was the cheapest place to volunteer. I helped out in a centre for hill-tribe kids so they could come to Chiang Rai and go to school. I met some lovely Thai people and foreigners and basically just fell in love with Chiang Rai. When my visa ran out I returned to Australia thinking “How can I come back to Thailand?” And she did, six weeks later, on an education visa to take an English as a Second Language (ESL) course at Chiang Rai University.
“It was all so new to me in the beginning but I fell in love with the place because of the freedom of riding a motorbike and the outside barbeques and the smell of them. I’m a Buddhist and love the temples, I love ritual and culture, all those things fascinate me and I still love it. I just love it all.”
“My husband, Mo, and I rent a lovely little wooden house surrounded by trees and flowers ten minutes from the city centre. The six houses in the compound were all built by the owner at different levels up the side of a small hill and are all different. Our house has two bedrooms, both en-suite, although one of them is my study room, a large terrace and an open-air kitchen. Life in Thailand is lived in the open so you don’t really have things like lounge-rooms or dining rooms. Everyone is very friendly and if there is a house empty for a while we use it for parties,” says Angie.
With views across tree-tops and rice fields, Angie’s rent is 6,000 baht a month, around half of what she would pay a week for a similar home ten minutes from any city in Australia—if you could even find such a beautiful and peaceful place as Janpha Cottage, the name of the compound where Angie lives, ten minutes from an Australian city. And living an easy life is equally affordable.
“I’m fortunate in that I have a small family trust fund, but it wouldn’t provide me with the same lifestyle in Australia that I have here. Our monthly expenses for two people are around 38,000 baht – and that includes feeding four expensively hungry cats! We eat at a nice restaurant at least once a week for around 700 baht for two, including wine, and we’ll go out for drinks with friends a couple of times each week. Fortunately, you can take your own wine to almost every restaurant in Thailand but it’s not cheap here, about 300baht for a basic but drinkable wine. I love Italian food and for a reasonable meal and drinks in Brisbane at a local Italian sharing a bottle of wine that we bought at the restaurant, we’d probably be looking at A$80 (2,200 baht ) for two, three times what I’d pay in Chiang Rai and that’s in one of the major wine-producing countries in the world.”
When not eating out Angie cooks at home and she’s a mean hand with a curry, having been the owner of The Curry Hut, a restaurant specialising in Thai and Indian curries, before she and Mo decided to move to Prachuap Khiri Khan on the southern coast of Thailand in 2015.
“I’m an adventurous sort of person and after living in Chiang Rai, which is in the mountains, for six years we decided to live by the sea in Southern Thailand. I’m not a person who misses things, but I realised that being in a close community, being with people I’d made friends with over six years was important to me. In Australia if you’ve known someone for six years you are relatively new friends, but when you are an ex-pat six years of building friendships is a long time, so we came back to Chiang Rai and I’m so happy we did.”
Food and friends are only parts of the expat equation and Angie has her own way of happily filling her time.
“I studied Buddhism for a long time and I love taking a ride and looking at the temples in the area. Most people just see the buildings with all the carving and gilding but I love the way that so many of them are so wonderfully kitsch. That’s not meant as an insult at all, I say it with a great deal of affection because it makes me happy to see that there’s as much a place at a temple for a small statue of a fat laughing woman or a morose-looking sheep with a ‘Welcome’ sign hung around its neck as there is for a golden Buddha. It seems to be part of the Thai temperament that they can mix their strong Buddhist faith with humour in a way that doesn’t seem to apply elsewhere. It’s the way they live their lives; sabai sabai, which means ‘happy, take it easy, feeling fine’.
“Chiang Rai is full of things like that. There’s a new temple being built near my home that has a statue of Guanyin, a famous vegetarian Chinese Buddhist nun that’s absolutely enormous. It’s got to be at least thirty metres tall and dwarves a nine-story pagoda they’ve just built beside it that’s so OTT with all the carving and fancy plasterwork that it looks like an enormous tiered wedding cake. Then there’s Wat Rong Khun, the White Temple that’s famous throughout Thailand, and the weird and wonderful clock tower in the middle of the city that does a full choral son et lumiere every night at seven, eight and nine. I think Chiang Rai must be the kitsch centre of Thailand, but I love it!”
To live the same lifestyle in Australia as Angie lives in Chiang Rai would cost about A$1,500 a week, around the same as it costs her a month in Thailand. But even though economically it makes sense to live here there’s so much more to it than that.
“I don’t know what it is but all the people who live here permanently all agree that there’s something special about Chiang Rai. You have the mountains and Kok River that even has its own beach where people go to eat and drink beer in bamboo cabanas right on the water’s edge. You drive five minutes out of town and you are into gorgeous little villages where you can stop and have a can of beer on the side of the road and have a chit-chat with a real local Thai person, so you are constantly getting those cultural experiences even after you’ve been here as long as I have.
“For anyone dithering about whether they should come to Thailand to live I’d say if you have an income, come and enjoy yourself, but make sure you have some kind of interest. It’s a great easy-going place to live, you can meet some nice people, have a lovely time and I know quite a lot of foreign couples who enjoy their life here. There’s quite a large ex-pat community if you crave that social contact with other foreigners, with painting classes, golf, movies, and if you rent a house you can always find something to do whether it’s gardening or bits of DIY. There’s so much to enjoy in this country.”
Angie Ubosot-Ahern’s simple rules for making the most of life in Thailand
Really try your best to learn the language. Try to learn the basics because it will enhance your experience. Be really aware of the culture because it is very different and it’s easy to be offensive unintentionally. It’s all around you, so if you accept it and get involved with it it’s really good fun. I’ve been to funerals, weddings and family parties and ceremonies and it’s made my experience of life in Thailand very rich. The successful foreigners here are those who have tried to learn the language, have embraced the food, the culture, and become part of daily life. You have to have a hobby or online business you can do from home to keep yourself occupied. But most of all….be patient with the driving!