Living as an Expat Family in Bangkok,
Article and photos by Heather Van Deest
A family visit to the local wat in Bangkok.
It is dusk on the outskirts of Bangkok. The evening anthem paying respect to King Bhumibol streams from loudspeakers nearby, as my sons, ages 3 and almost 2, chase each other through the grass where we live, giggling and shrieking.
My husband and I watch as our oldest son runs toward the frangipani tree at the playground’s edge and gathers some of the white blossoms that have fallen to the ground. My youngest son follows, and, soon, both boys scurry toward me and excitedly place the flowers in my cupped hands.
Breathing in the sweet scent of the frangipani blooms, it is not hard to remember how grateful I am for our life in Bangkok, for the warmth of Thai culture, and for my family’s opportunity to learn about the larger world by living abroad.
Moving to Thailand
In 2005, after attending a teacher-recruiting fair in the US, our home country, my husband received an offer to teach humanities at an international school in the Big Mango, as some people call it. We made the decision to move before we had children, knowing it would be an opportunity for adventure and a smart career move for both of us—my husband could return to teaching internationally, as he had done before we married, and I could continue to pursue writing projects. Together we would explore Thailand and the surrounding regions of Southeast Asia.
Little did we know that more than seven years later, we would still call Thailand home, and that our family of two would have expanded to four. Today we continue to explore Bangkok and beyond, and with two young boys in tow, it is like a brand new adventure.
Outside the City
We live in Pakkret, a suburban area about 20 kilometers northwest of the city center. Although still crowded, here we find a little more elbow room and a little more peace, perhaps, than expats living in high rises in the heart of the city.
Like many locals, on weekends we dine on curry and som tam at riverside restaurants or take a short boat ride to Koh Kret, an island in the river bend, to watch the Mon people make pottery and enjoy the luxury of a stroll where cars are prohibited.
Family Life in Bangkok
Bangkok is known for its gilded temples, tempting cuisine, and steamy nightlife, but it is also known among expat circles as a great place to raise children abroad.
The boat to Koh Kret Island in Bangkok.
Access to quality healthcare is a priority for many expatriate families, and my family is no exception. Both of my sons were born in Bangkok, at a state-of-the-art hospital rivaling Western facilities. The waiting rooms here are filled with people from across the world, particularly the Middle East and Europe, who travel to the country as “medical tourists” seeking affordable, quality health care.
In terms of costs, our health insurance is provided by my husband’s school and while we do pay a monthly premium, it is far less for a family of four than current rates in the U.S.
Childcare differs in Thailand as well, where domestic help is commonplace and accepted in the culture. When my oldest son was born, I struggled with the concept of relying on a nanny when I needed to be away, because I thought I should be able to do it all myself and because I was uncomfortable with the notion of employing help. Over time, though, I have come to accept that I cannot judge my life abroad through a Western lens, as though I never left the U.S. As I realized the challenges of raising two small children far from family and friends in my own culture, I came to embrace having in-home help, someone my children can learn from, and someone who knows what they need while truly caring for them.
Bangkok's Climate and Other Considerations
Two of the most common concerns you may hear about Bangkok is the reality of the heat and pollution. I cannot argue that these factors do influence my family’s decision to remain in the area for the long term.
Admittedly, the heat can be debilitating, especially in the “summer” months of April and May, when temperatures sometimes top 40°C. However, it seems the longer we call Thailand home, the more we have become accustomed to the sticky, humid heat.
I do worry about the effects of Bangkok’s pollution on my children, which is one of the reasons I appreciate living outside the city center, where the pollution is less intense. The situation has improved over the last 15 years, with measures such as the introduction of more public transit options and the conversion of motorbikes from two to four-stroke engines, but the city has a long way to go to improve air quality.
Our Community in Bangkok: Inside and Out
We live in a gated community, which is home to upper-middle class Thais and expatriates from around the world. Although each entrance is staffed with guards, and residents show identification when entering and leaving, it is less about safety that we live here, and more about proximity to my husband’s workplace.
My spouse’s 5-minute bike ride to his school means no traffic-snarled commute and more quality time with our sons. Most afternoons you will find us on the playground with the boys or in the parking lot of our apartment building, watching them ride their scooters in circles and chatting with other parents whose children are doing the same.
Our boys also love to visit the school where their father works, which serves as a community center of sorts. There they join fellow residents to cheer on student athletes at sports events and to show their support at charity races, among other activities.
While we value living among expats, our family also makes sure to get out and explore. In addition to trips to the river, we enjoy visiting various parks and wats or venturing downtown for a meal. We also love escaping the city for the occasional day trip. Options include Khao Yai, a national park home to elephants and gibbons, and Ayutthaya, one of the nation’s ancient capitals.
Though some may say life in a gated community is not the “real” Thailand, this way of living is our reality, one we appreciate for its blend of the beauty and diversity of Thai culture and the support and camaraderie of fellow expats.
It is no secret that Thai people love and revere children. Even before my husband and I had kids, we recognized the playful, caring way adults interact with children, from big grins and friendly touches to games of peek-a-boo. This reverence is also evident from the billboards dotted around the city, depicting King Bhumibol’s youngest grandson as he laughs and plays.
My own sons are no strangers to the showering of Thai affection. Since they were both tiny babies, they have attracted the smiles, pinches-on-cheeks, and adoration that is common throughout the country. Given my sons’ blonde hair, we often encounter people who love to watch the antics of two farang preschoolers. “Narak,” the onlookers say, reaching toward the boys for a hug or a pat on the cheek.
Taking a turn with the gong.
Sometimes, though, the attention can be overwhelming, as at a recent riverside celebration, when my 3-year-old frowned at the many passersby attempting to touch him. We had made the trip to a nearby pier to take part in the annual Loy Krathong festival, when Thais pay respect to the goddess of water by floating krathongs, or offerings of flowers, candles, and incense, on open bodies of water.
Weaving our way through the crowds, amid luk thung music streaming from loudspeakers, my son nodded as I explained that the playful touches that seemed intrusive to him were how people said hello.
Later, with my son smiling again, our family of four boarded a small teak barge, along with teenage couples, office workers, and families, and traveled a short distance to the middle of the river. A couple next to us snapped photos of each other and grinned at the boys, as long-tail boats zoomed by and fireworks popped all around. “Make a wish,” I said, as the kids watched their father light the candles and incense on our krathongs and lower them into the water.
I will not give away my wish, but it is probably easy to figure out—a boat ride on the river with my family by my side, surrounded by the welcoming smiles and the lights and the sounds of Bangkok—it does not get much better than this.
For More on Living and Working in Bangkok
Living in Bangkok Resources
Bangkok 101: An online guide to the Big Mango, focusing on art, culture, and food.
Thailand Guru: An online guide to living and working in Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand.
ThaiVisa.com: A popular expat forum on living and working in Thailand. The site also offers a mobile app to easily access their site on your smartphone.
Internations: Community in Bangkok: A social networking service for expatriates living across the world, including Bangkok, featuring in-person meetings and events, as well as tips, information, and online forums.
Find Work in Bangkok Resources
TIEOnline, ISS and Search Associates: These three services offer job postings, and host recruitment events worldwide for educators looking for positions in international schools, with many listings for Thailand.
Heather Van Deest is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in U.S. parenting publications and in literary journals, including The Los Angeles Review and Hippocampus Magazine.