Okay! School vacation’s over! Ready to go back to class? No?? Don’t worry, I won’t make you work too hard or stand up in front of the class… unless you want to, of course. But if you’ll just follow me, I’ll show you where I work.

What kind of job do you have? I teach English at Chiang Mai University, known in northern Thailand as maw-chaw. (Maw-chaw is the initials for the university in Thai.) I got the job when I first came to Chiang Mai a year ago, and so far they seem to like me. I get paid by the hour, and I teach 15 hours a week. I don’t make a lot of money, but it’s enough to get by if I budget myself and don’t go hog-wild on weekends. Most farang ajaans at CMU have a second job, and so do I. My second job is at a Catholic high school for girls. Between the two jobs, the money I make is pretty good.

What is an ajaan? An ajaan is a college teacher, a professor. It’s a title of respect. When I go out on the town, people who know me often call me ajaan John. It means they think I’m a really swell guy. I kind of like it.

Who do you work with? Drifters, outlaws, revolutionaries … no, not really. We have both Thai and farang teachers at the university. About half of the staff are farangs, who come from English speaking countries such as the U.S., England, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. There may also be a few from countries like Burma, Hong Kong, or Singapore, where English is a strong second language.
The rest of the staff in the English department is Thai. The Thais run the department, design the courses, and make the rules. Sometimes there is tension between the Thai and the foreign ajaans, but I try to steer clear of it. A big office like the English department is always going to have politics and cliques, and people who want to protect their territory. I don’t like that kind of stuff either, but right now I’m happy just to be living in Thailand.
Many of the farang ajaans came to Thailand after raising a family or working for twenty years in their own countries. Some are close to retirement age, and seem to just like being in Thailand. Others are just out of college, and are just starting out in life. Some stay for just one or two semesters, others stay for twenty years.

How do you get your visa? It’s easy for me, because CMU arranges all the paperwork so that I don’t even have to leave town. Farangs who work at some of the other schools are not so lucky. They have to leave Thailand every three months and re-apply for a visa. Laos and Malaysia are the usual stopovers for these “visa runs.”

So, how much does it cost to live in Thailand? (Updated, Aug 1998) Before I answer this question I must point out two things. First, not everyone needs the same amount of comfort; not everyone can live the way I do. Second, things have changed in the Thai economy since I first wrote this, and they may continue to change. So what I am going to tell you is true for me, but it may not be true for someone else. And it may not be true next year, either.
In Chiang Mai, you can rent a small apartment near the university for about 2,500 baht a month. This includes a bedroom and bathroom only, no kitchen. If you want a place with more luxuries, you can spend 3,500 or 4,500. You can also share a house for about 3,000 a month, or rent one yourself if you feel flush. Forty-five hundred baht will rent you a modest house, or you can pay 7,000 or even 10,000 if you want something really fancy.
Transportation in Chiang Mai is fairly inexpensive, about 200 baht a month if you own a motorbike, or a little more if you take public transportation. I have no idea what it costs to own a car, but you don’t need a car in Chiang Mai.
Food is cheap; figure on 150 baht a day or so, which comes to 4,500 a month. Entertainment and discretionary expense varies from person to person. Movies are cheap at 70 baht. Thai massage is a steal at 100 baht per hour (compare to $40 an hour in the U.S.). Going out to hear live music or to a disco can come to a couple of hundred baht if you’re conservative, but if you get carried away, you can easily spend much more.
Other incidental expenses may include visits to medical clinics, which are cheap compared to the U.S. – usually not more than 200 baht per visit for simple complaints, often including medicine. Also figure in large consumer purchases for your apartment, or things like visa fees and work permits, or any classes you might want to enroll in.
So, if you want to go the cheap route, we have 2,500 for rent, 200 baht for transportation, 4,500 baht for food, and for entertainment let’s assume 2,000 a month. Throw in another 2,000 just for things that always seem to happen, and the final figure comes to 11,200 per month. At 43 baht to the dollar, which is where it’s been for some time now in 1998, that would be about $260 a month.
But remember, the salaries for most jobs in Thailand are pretty low, too. You’re not going to live like a king, unless you bring a lot of money with you. And, I’ve always found that it’s easy to spend more than I planned.
In the end, your cost of living all depends on the kind of lifestyle you want to have. If you want to live in a nice house, eat western food in a restaurant every night, and own a car, you’re going to spend a lot more than 11,000 baht a month. But, if you are the kind of person who doesn’t mind eating Thai food on the streets most of the time, and who can be satisfied with small things, then living in Chiang Mai on a teacher’s salary will be fine for you. I kind of think that living within the range of the local economy is the whole beauty of the experience anyway.
How do you like them apples?