Playing the Expat Game in Thailand


Yes, that happened.  The view from Baan Sawan.

Yes, that happened. The view from Baan Sawan.

The summer before we moved to Shanghai, my friend Lisa, who had already lived here for three years, told me that the Chinese “expat game,” as she referred to it, was all about monetarily breaking even — going home with as much money as you came with.  Lisa’s point was that living in a big, cosmopolitan city like Shanghai, and taking advantage of the travel opportunities associated with living in Asia Pacific, take a toll on your bank account.  Like most Western expats, we get certain allowances from the working spouse’s employer that are meant to help us remain “whole,” economically speaking, from all the costs associated with moving your family halfway around the world.  Shanghai is an expensive place to live and you need to keep an eye on expenses.

On top of the cost of living in Asia, there is the travel piece of the game, which is all about your proximity to new cultural experiences and how many of them you can get in the limited time you are in Asia.  As anyone who reads this blog knows, I am drunk on Asia Pacific.  I didn’t see it coming, nor did I expect to love this part of the world as much as I do, but I’m addicted.  And that’s a problem, because It is a huge region and can be wildly expensive to travel throughout.  Complicating matters is the fact that we get Chinese AND American holidays off from school and work.  Asia Pacific is dangled in front of us like a priceless gem.

So we all travel, and travel hard.  We go to the “must see” places and also to the spots where we can just chill.  Keeping costs down can be difficult when you have so many amazing countries right in front of you, like an endless and expensive buffet.  Our wonderful Shanghai travel agent Julie has been great at finding us the most inexpensive flights to the most exotic locales (  But every once in a while there are the times when the madness of Shanghai and China causes us to say, “screw it!  We are only here once.”  That’s when we go big and travel like drunken pirates.  And that’s how we rolled in Ko Samui, Thailand for Chinese New Year.

Baan Sawan

Baan Sawan

We stayed in a villa (really a house, but villa sounds much cooler) called Baan Sawan.  It was high up in the hills above the town of Bophut, where the Fisherman’s Village is located, and is probably the most beautiful vacation property I have ever stayed in (  I’m going to let the pictures in the post do the talking.  Our original plan had been to spend a long weekend in Bangkok, powering around that dynamic city.  Then we would go tropical on Ko Samui for a few days, before heading back to Shanghai.  Political chaos in Bangkok forced us to cancel that part of the trip.  So the whole vacation suddenly became a tropical island trip.

Stephanie upstairs in Baan Sawan

Stephanie going upstairs in Baan Sawan

Ko (means “island” in Thai) Samui is located in the Gulf of Thailand and is smaller than Ko Phuket.  It is beautiful and manic, full of tourists from around the world during Chinese New Year.  Baan Sawan, however, is high above all the madness, like a tropical oasis.  The girls and I had eight days on the island.  Unfortunately, Karen had only three since she had to attend the Dehli Auto Show.  We made the best of those first three days, leaving the villa occasionally and coming down the hill to Bophut to play in the Fisherman’s Village, which was a lot of fun (  There, we experienced the best night market I have been to so far in Asia Pacific, with vendors stretching along the village alleyways for a quarter mile in each direction.  It had a fun, exciting vibe and we roamed the market, sampling street food and exotic drinks, which made for a memorable Friday night.

The girls at the Fisherman's Village night market, with Cassidy drinking very fresh coconut water, and Steph a Mango smoothie.

The girls at the Fisherman’s Village night market, with Cassidy drinking very fresh coconut water, and Steph a Mango smoothie.

Karen left Baan Sawan for India the next day (not happily), and for the next week, it was just me and the girls in our tropical oasis.  I was concerned about how I was going to keep the girls occupied, but that proved to be an unwarranted worry as they quickly adapted to paradise.  The infinity-edge pool at Baan Sawan is big and has a ridiculous view of the Gulf of Thailand.  The girls frolicked and swam a lot, while I supervised from the deck (usually with my favorite Thai beer, Chang).  The villa is managed by a wonderful Filipino couple named Star and Levy, who live very unobtrusively on the property with their friendly and hilarious dog Ozzie.  Baan Sawan has three huge bedrooms, a comfortable living and dining area, and an airy kitchen where Star made us breakfast every day.  We ate on the large patio outside, overlooking the pool deck and that view.  It was so beautiful that I never wanted to leave.

We rode, and fed, elephants again in Thailand

We rode, and fed, elephants again in Thailand

Yet somehow we wrenched ourselves from the villa and foraged our way down to the island’s chaotic towns.  We had Sunday brunch at a cool place called Beach Republic on Lamai beach (  It was a totally chill place and as soon as we walked in they led us to three loungers by a salt water pool and took our drink orders.  (The girls had juice, I did not.)  Then they left us with towels and a great view of the Gulf of Thailand.  Not a bad way to begin a brunch, which was a huge buffet affair.  The girls and I ate and swam for the rest of the afternoon.

The girls on a giant, floating trampoline in the Gulf of Thailand

The girls on a giant, floating trampoline off Ko Samui

For the remainder of the trip, we did what you should do when you visit Thailand:  Rode elephants, spent a day on a boat (more below), hit the beach, relaxed by the pool, and ate excellent food.  There are really nice beaches on Ko Samui, including Bophut, Lamai, and Maenam, and then there is Chaweng, of which I am not a fan.  It is the biggest and most popular beach on the island, which is part of its problem.  I took the girls there one day so they could play at Aquapark Chaweng, which is like a water park, only located in the ocean (  It reminds me of the American television show Wipeout, and includes huge inflatable objects that you can climb, jump, or throw yourself off.  The girls went nuts while I had a beer at one of the numerous Chaweng beachfront bars that are mostly frequented by either really young or really old, heavily tattooed Russians and Europeans.  Enough said.

Cassidy catching her first fish ever -- in the Gulf of Thailand!

Cassidy catching her first fish ever — in the Gulf of Thailand!

The next day we spent on the Gulf of Thailand.  (That could be one of the happiest sentences I’ve ever written.)  We chartered a boat called The Diamond through Thai Island Cruising (, which is run by South Africans Scott and Rosanne Turner.  (Rosanne is a very good travel writer and blogger at  We have done several chartered boat trips during our Asia Pacific travels, but I have to say this was one of my favorites.  I recommend it strongly.  On the boat, it was just Cassidy, Steph and I, along with another South African, Captain Masters, and Nay, a Burmese national who was the boat’s first mate.

Stephanie and the James Bond contraption that moves you underwater

Stephanie and the James Bond contraption that moves you underwater

We took a leisurely tour around Ko Pha Ngan, an island about half the size of Ko Samui and off to its north.  Cassidy caught her first fish ever, a big neon orange and yellow thing that we threw back after she got over the thrill of catching it.  We also explored several of the gorgeous harbors and beaches dotting the island.  We pulled into one small harbor, jumped into the tiny motor boat on the back of the Diamond, and took it to shore.  There we climbed up a big rock face to an open air restaurant and had lunch with Captain Masters and Nay overlooking the harbor.  We ended the day in another harbor called Hat Tuan, where I had a beer at a place aptly named the Bamboo Hut.  I sat on the white sand beach and watched the girls play on a stand up paddle board and something called a Blade Fish, which is a James Bond-esque contraption that propels you forward or down through the water.  It was a long, fun, lazy day on a great boat with a great crew, and concluded with a blazingly beautiful sunset over Ko Samui.

Cassidy and Captain Masters piloting into the sunset near Ko Samui

Cassidy and Captain Masters piloting into the sunset near Ko Samui

We ate many wonderful meals on Ko Samui, starting with the great Thai food that Star cooked for us at Baan Sawan.  We also had good meals at the restaurants Alla Baia and The Seaside Steak House in the Fishermen’s Village, as well as Prego in Chawang, all of which I would recommend.  My favorite restaurant meal on the island was dinner with the girls at a place called Barracuda in Maenam Beach (  It had a cool atmosphere and opened up to the bustling street.  I had an amazing tuna tartare with an avocado mousse, and a sea bass dish with mango salsa that was spectacularly good.  The girls had pasta, then decadent hot chocolate lava cakes with raspberry ice cream.  I partook in the dessert festivities, of course.

My favorite restaurant on Ko Samui, Barracuda

My favorite restaurant on Ko Samui, Barracuda

That dessert, on our last night in Ko Samui, was the perfect ending to a perfect, somewhat over the top, tropical island vacation.  So we play the game.  We save where we can.  But every once in a while, we board an airplane that takes us to a tropical paradise in Asia Pacific.  It may not be the economical play, but with the clock ticking on our expat game, we will take the chance.

Did I forget to mention "spa day" at Baan Sawan?  Star arranged for a manicurist (her very sweet niece) and two masseuses to come to the villa

Did I forget to mention “spa day” at Baan Sawan? Star arranged for a manicurist (her very sweet niece) and two masseuses to come to the villa


The girls roaming the Fisherman's Village Night Market on Samui, Thailand.

The girls roaming the night market on Ko Samui, Thailand.


Lunch on an island paradise (Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand)

Lunch at an island paradise (Ko Pha Ngan, Thailand)


Sunset over Koh Samui, after a great trip

Sunset over Koh Samui, after a great trip

5 thoughts on “Playing the Expat Game in Thailand

  1. Great observations! I especially liked how you talk about the traveling expenses and your theory for traveling around Asia-Pacific. Its great to have fun, and also to do it in an economically sound way. A good lesson for all expats abroad!

  2. Great post! One of my all time places on my bucket list is Asia! Me being born in England, parents born in Zambia and heritage from India…Asia-Pacific is my next bet! Looks like you’re having a blast!

  3. Hey Howard! I am loving your blog… And can relate to your love of travel. Do yourself a favor and book a trip to Myanmar!!! I just spent a month traveling throughout SE Asia ( which is why I am seriously considered the expat assignment to shanghai) it was the absolute highlight! I am happy to give you some tips if you are interested. I am madly in love with that part of the world.

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