Episode 8: how to retire in Thailand part 2

Hugh and Pikul
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Hugh dishes out his top 3 recommendations for retirement in Thailand; as well as what made him start to learn reading Thai after 25 years…This is part 2 out of a 3 part series. Welcome back!

Listen to part 1 here

Download MP3 to listen offline here

Have trouble listen to it click here

By Lani

While Hugh talked specifically about his top retirement tips, we asked him how retirees meet other retirees, which is a question I often receive. His own experience has been rich and layered since he has lived in Thailand for many years, but for newcomers he recommends The Expat Club which is throughout Thailand.

Getting involved with clubs and groups centered on your interests and activities can also be a good place to start. Hugh also mentioned The Chiang Mai Friends which is another group that meets once a month. They do volunteer work too. And remember you can always start your own club!

Surprisingly Chiang Mai has about 40,000 expats with 8,000 US Citizens registered with the US consulate. Hugh shared that the largest expat groups were the British, and the Japanese who are at about 20,000. The อีสาน/Isaan/Northeast area has a lot of expats too. So since there are many expats living here, Hugh thinks living in a หมู่บ้าน/moo baan or gated community is a great way to meet new friends.

And now here are Hugh’s top three advices for relocating to Thailand (or anywhere!)…

#1: Do a trial run or a trial retirement before you move. Check out pharmacies, transportation, supermarkets, housing and, of course, costs. It is also important to remember cost of living depends on where you live. There is a big difference between Bangkok and the countryside or วังเหนือ wang nŭa.

#2: Find something to do. (see number 3)

“Motivation is the only variable in language learning that makes any difference.” –Hugh Leong

#3 Learn Thai. It is challenging but important, and not impossible. You’ll meet people and you’ll be able to communicate your ideas and it will give you something to do! (see number 2!) It opens up so many doors and you’ll be able to talk about religion, politics, the weather and it helps you understand Thai culture too.

For 25 years Hugh didn’t learn reading and writing in Thai. But he decided to learn because his vocabulary and understanding was limited to daily encounters and his surroundings. He realized he could expand his vocabulary through learning to read. Because when you read, especially in Thai, you learn new vocabulary, formalized vocabulary and even the head scratching slang used in newspaper headlines, such as  มะกัน /má gun as an American.

Actually Hugh recommends never reading the headlines, read the captions under the pictures instead. But Hugh started off by learning the basics: the alphabet, then working his way through the มานี/Maanii books, then สองภาษา/ sŏng pa-să/2 languages books, and finally the newspaper. He learned a new word a day and has built up his vocabulary. So it’s a process that he has been working at and now he can say just about anything he needs to say!


“If you are living in a country where you are surrounded by 65 million folks who speak a language different than you, isn’t that motivation enough?” -Hugh Leong


This is actually Hugh’s number one advice: LEARN THAI. Which he interestingly enough equates to learning golf because he feels golf is the most difficult thing he has ever done, and the reason why he loves learning Thai is because it is so difficult. He works really hard, because he doesn’t consider himself a good language learner or a natural at it.

Lastly we ended the podcast with a Thai proverb. We asked Hugh what his favorite Thai saying is:

ผักชีโรยหน้า/ pàk chee roi nâa – the corrander that’s sprinkled on top  or “putting your best face forward”

ผักชี/pak chee – corrander

โรย/roi – to sprinkle

หน้า/naa – the top


Thai culture allows you to see the good stuff “sprinkled on top” but underneath the surface there is something else going on. Not unlike the Western saying “sweeping everything under the rug”. It has a negative connotation but a revealing one, one that gives you a little insight to Thai culture and Thais way of thinking.

Check out the list of Thai proverbs here

What’s your favorite Thai phrase?


Coming up next week in part 3 of this series, Mia interviews Hugh in Thai, stay tuned !!!!


Hugh has written for the Bangkok Post, The Far Eastern Economic Review, Asia Magazine, Sawasdee, and even The Mother Earth News (about living an alternative lifestyle teaching in Thailand). He has an MA in TESOL and has taught at The Royal Thai Naval Academy, Chiang Mai University, and was the Director of AUA, Chiang Mai.

For Thais he has written 5 English textbooks, and even a guidebook for Thais planning to live in the U.S. (translated into Thai). Although most Chiang Mai residents might know Hugh from his retirement column for Chiang Mai City Life magazine which he wrote for 5 years.

Now you can find him at: retire2thailand.com and on his blog on retirement at: retire2thailand.wordpress.com. He has an eBook called “Retired Life in Thailand” (ebooksinthailand.com) and is a monthly contributor for womenlearnthai.com on Thai Language Thai Culture.

7 thoughts on “Episode 8: how to retire in Thailand part 2

  1. Having read his posts and contributions to WLT (as well as having bought one of his ebooks) it was good hearing Hugh’s voice in the interviews. I would like to question one or two points that he made.
    1. Learning Thai – Now I would have put that at number one. It is difficult to understand how anyone could expect to go to live in a country unable to speak the language at all, though I know some do. I take Hugh’s point though I take his point about learning any language is a life-long activity.
    2. I agree also that motivation is the key to learning any skill such as a new language, but (and perhaps I am biased as an ex-teacher) I would argue that a good teacher is key to providing and bolstering that motivation, especially at those times when you begin to despair of every being able to master the language!
    3. I was interested to hear Hugh’s views about the ability of adult non-natives to distinguish and produce clear tones. That young Thai babies are able to learn them, is not really valid as during growth and language acquision neural pathways grow and disappear, some interesting research was done in US on ability to distinguish and reproduce “r” and “l” sounds in children growing up in a Japanese speaking environment. It showed that ability to hear and distinguish “non-native” sounds did decrease as their own language developed. I do agree with him though that it is not impossible, it’s just that for us oldies, it takes longer as our poor old brains struggle to rebuild those pathways!! (and a very very patient teacher helps!)
    I am so pleased that I am not the only one who finds newspaper headlines indecipherable! I like to try to read one (short) article a day. But I must confess, I tend to concentrate, where possible, on football as I have got the hang of many of the nicknames and language foibles. Crime and politics articles are the hardest as they have so many initials and names.

    • Hi Keith,

      Good to hear from you again. Let me try to respond to your questions.

      1. I also don’t know how anyone can live in a country and not be able to speak to the people there in their own language. But it happens. Just today I was with another American who literally doesn’t speak a word of Thai. But he gets along fine, has lots of American friends, and his wife speaks English quite well. He doesn’t seem that interested in things Thai or in the Thai people around him so his motivation to learn the language is non-existent. And he seems quite happy.

      2. I am sure that a good teacher helps us obtain new language skills but in fact teachers are not absolutely necessary. One of my heroes is Sir Richard Burton (the explorer, not the actor) 1821-1890. It is said that he could speak 29 languages (European, Asian, and African), and even more dialects. He was one of the first and only people during that time to fake his way into Mecca (where non Muslims are not allowed) because his Arabic was so good. I don’t believe he learned all those languages by going to class with a teacher – he wouldn’t have had any time for exploring. But I am sure he had what is called “linguistic informants” though and they probably helped a lot. We all use “informants”, people we can turn to for help learning the language. Sometimes we call them teachers, sometimes we call them husbands or wives and I am sure that the better they are the better our language abilities will be.

      3. I was referring to a person’s physical ability to both distinguish and produce language sounds. Since we have the physical ability and we still have problems in these areas then something else must be getting in the way. That something else is usually “first language interference”. We have been trained to say a sound in a certain way and that blocks our ability to make other less familiar sounds. A good illustration of this is the native speakers of Issan (northeastern Thailand). They have trouble with the “R” sound (although if they work at it they will be able to say it fine). Now the Thai language has both the “R” and the “L” sounds but Issan has no “R” sound so it is usually replaced with the “L”. You can see this clearly when you read a westerner’s writing the Thai word for “foreigner” using English script. If the person writes “Falang” then he usually says it that way and he usually lives in the northeast and has learned this word from the people there. If he writes “Farang’ then he probably learned the word from a Thai living outside of Issan. Written in Thai this word uses an “R” but since the Issan people say it with an “L” that is what the westerner hears and then later says.

      • Hugh,

        Thanks so much for your very detailed reply. I understand better now what you meant there.
        Sir Richard Burton was an extremely talented man, though his reputation in UK at the time was not, well, the best due to the extreme prudery of Victorian Britain. He also illustrates another point about language learning. In order to enter Mecca, his language skills must have been good, but they would have to have been supported with a good cultural understanding for him to have been believed and accepted. The two walk hand-in-hand, I believe.

  2. Thank you for these wonderful podcasts. I’m not anywhere near close to retiring, but have found this information to be excellent. I will be sure to have many of my friends listen!

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