Living in Thailand as an Expat, Volunteering in Chang Mai’s Elephant Nature Park

As part of The Delicious Day’s ongoing series of people who work and live abroad, I was excited to chat with Diana about living in Thailand. I have thought more than once (probably more like 43,521 times) about living in Thailand myself and wanted to get an insider’s story.

Here is a bit of what she had to say.


How did you end up in Thailand?

Last year I went and volunteered at Elephant Nature Park just outside of Chang Mai and I fell in love with it. I stayed in touch with the founder of the park for five or six months after I returned to Vegas. I knew I did not want to stay in Nevada. I eventually sent the founder an email and said I would like to come back and help. A few weeks later she wrote me back and told me she would love to have me.

What were you doing in Vegas?

I was splitting my time between spinning my wheels doing PR for a restaurant company and freelance writing, as well as my blog, d travels ’round.

How do the visa requirements in Thailand work?

I have a Type O Non-Immigrant Volunteer Visa. It is a one year visa. I had to get a letter from Save Elephant Foundation in order to get it.

How did you originally find the volunteer opportunity with Save Elephant Foundation?

I originally found the volunteer opportunity through Facebook. I asked some of my travel writer colleagues if they knew of any ways to spend time with elephants, and Elephant Nature Park came up. There are a few websites out there with information about the park, but the one I suggest people to go to is the foundation’s site, That has all of the latest information and is managed by the organization which supports the park and other projects.

What were your fears in leaving the US to move to Thailand for a year? Did any of them come to fruition?

I really didn’t get scared at the thought of leaving. Everyone asked me if I was scared and what fears I had, but I was just so excited to be living my dream, that fear never really had a chance to creep into my body. Plus, I had been to Chiang Mai before and knew what to expect.

Do you have ideas on how someone without a visa could get a job or go about living in Thailand long term?

Diana of Currently living in Thailand.

Diana of Currently living in Thailand.

I do not work here. I am a volunteer. I am sure there are things you could do work wise quietly without a visa. Other people do border runs every 90 days. I believe there are laws and regulations about how many times you can do the border runs, but I know people who have been here awhile doing it.

How long can people do these border runs before they need a Thai visa of some sort?

I know people who have been doing this for two years.

How did you find your place to live in Chang Mai?

I knew some people who lived in Chang Mai before I came. The place I live is where a lot of travel bloggers live. I live in a hotel room.

Does it have a kitchen?

Mine has a little fridge and a microwave, but I don’t cook. If you want a kitchen that will cost extra.

What do you eat?

Street food. You can get Pad Thai for 25 Bhat which is less than one US dollar.

How much do you pay for rent in Chang Mai?

I pay too much. I pay 300 US dollars a month.

Why did you choose to pay more than you needed to for rent?

It is a nice place. I have a maid that comes once a week. There is a restaurant downstairs and I have laundry. The building is located really close to the old city. The building has many expats, but I know for the same amount of money I could get a house.

Is there an online resource to find houses in Chang Mai or Thailand?

The best way to do it, from what I have heard, is to hire a realtor and they will take you around to different places for rent.

Do those realtors charge you?

I don’t know. I know there are some forums. There is and it is a big resource. There is a Facebook group with a list of apartment that expats rent.  It is called I 3Chiang Mai.

What about other expenses of living in Chang Mai? A motorbike? Groceries?

I am terrified of riding a motorbike but the public transportation will take you just about anywhere for under one dollar.

What is a day of food costing you if you eat out?

I get a fruit shake for breakfast which is about 60 cents, lunch is a couple [US] dollars and dinner is under a dollar. You would not spend more than four or five dollars for a meal unless you are eating at a place that is geared towards the tourists.

How do you deal with the language?

I am slowly learning Thai. I am around Thai people all day and they teach me things. There are restaurants I go to and they are slowly teaching me. I think if you are going to be here for a long time it is worth learning the language.  There is a language school ALA. It is huge. There are visas you can get just to study Thai. There are also private tutors. You can meet someone who wants to learn English and you can do language exchange.

How does socializing work when you are an expat in Thailand?

There is an expat club here.  I have not got involved in it. There are Facebook groups that post about what is going on at night, like the I 3 Chiang Mai page, and the Friends of Chiang Mai Couchsurfing. I am lucky because where I live there are a lot of native English speakers. Slowly, you just kind of get to meet people.

Where are the majority of the expats from? Is there a commonality among them?

The majority of expats I have met are from the UK, Europe, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and America. The community is mixed – all ages, both sexes. Some are long-term travelers, others are retired, and others work here.

How do you handle health insurance in Thailand?

I use World Nomads. Medical care in Thailand is very, very inexpensive. For a recent quick doctor visit and prescriptions I spent under 30 US dollars.

How is Internet service in Chang Mai?

It is pretty good. I think people have the perception that power goes out all the time and the Internet is sporadic, but that is not the case at all.

Do you on a day to day basis feel relatively safe in Chang Mai?

Absolutely. I have never, not felt safe. I walk by myself at night. I have never felt scared here – ever.

What do you think are some of the misconceptions about being an expat?

It isn’t always easy. I got really lonely when I first moved here.

Are there certain professional cultural differences you deal with between Thailand and the US?

In America it is go, go, go and it is more laid back here. I am quickly learning, ‘no worries.’  Everyone works really hard, but it is at a different pace than what I am used to. In Thai culture they save face. You cannot confront anybody. The other day they lost my shirt in the laundry and I asked them if, ‘maybe they misplaced it?’ And they said, ‘No, no, no.’ The next day the woman came up and gave me my shirt. It is all about saving face. You do not raise your voice, you do not show emotion.

When you say show no emotion that means no emotion?

No crying, no raising your voice, no yelling.

Are there social cultural differences you struggle with?

Not really yet. I have never been totally immersed in Thai culture. I always go out with some Thai people and some expats.

What are the frustrations you experience living in Thailand?

I do not really have any. You have to learn to roll with the punches a little more here. You can’t be that uptight American person. It is learning to relax a little more. It is hard at times because it is so bred into me not to be relaxed and everyone here is just really laid back. I do not really have a lot of frustrations. I think sometimes I have frustrations as an expat, but they are not frustrations with Thailand.

What are the frustrations you feel as an expat?

It can get lonely at times. I have met some cool people. People come here for a little and then they leave. It is hard to make lasting friendships. There are times when you get home at night and you want to call a girlfriend and there is no one here I can really call and if I want to call someone in the US there is an 11 to 14 hour time difference. It is about adjusting to that and really truly being on your own.

Have you found people who do anything especially creative that allows them to live in Thailand?

A lot of people come as freelancers who have location independent jobs. Others get a job teaching English or they get a volunteer position.

Are there a lot of jobs teaching English in Thailand?

Yes, where I work there are opportunities for someone to come and teach English in exchange for room and board.

What advice do you have for someone who is thinking about living in Thailand?

Just try it, but know you have to be really comfortable with who you are because you are leaving all of the comforts of what you know. You test yourself by living here … or anywhere outside of what you are used to. If you are not ready to test yourself then you need to wait. But if you are ready, I would say do it. If it fails at least you tried.

What keeps you there?

I love it here. The woman who runs Save Elephant Foundation. Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, is probably one of the most inspiring people I have ever met in my life. I love being around her. The foundation is doing such amazing things and I love being a part of helping animals, encouraging responsible tourism and educating people.

How is the Diana of Thailand different from the Diana of the US?

I’m ridiculously, blissfully happy nearly every moment of my life. I have a job I truly adore, and am being exposed to things I never imagined.

What do you think you will do when your year is up?

Try and stay for another year. I have thought about it a lot. I am going to go home for Thanksgiving. The thought of going back to America kind of stresses me out. It is such a different life here. For all of its ups and downs I love it. America is my country, but I don’t know if I want to live there again.

I hear a lot of people say that. It is interesting because I lived in Colorado which is a wonderful place. At 5:01 in most offices in Colorado you can shoot a canon through the place and not hit anyone, but what is somewhat normal to do is  go out to dinner after work – which can easily cost 75 dollars for a couple or go get drinks which can easily be 30 dollars in drinks. And when that is gone there is a sense of, ‘Oh thank God.’ I live in Spain now. I have no idea how I would spend 30 dollars on drinks.

I love Spain. It is my favorite country in the world.

It is a beautiful place.

When I want to go out for beers here I know I will not spend more than 10 dollars. I imagine going home will be a huge culture shock. Here everything is chill and you walk everywhere. There my parents live in a suburb and you have to get in a car to go anywhere and if you want a beer it is five dollars, but in Thailand that five dollars would get you a whole meal and two beers. I do not look forward to that aspect of it and I do not necessarily agree with the culture of work, work, work, work.

If you are volunteering, how do you afford to do this?

I still maintain many of my freelance writing jobs I had while in America, plus I make some additional income off of my blog.

Could you explain what you meant by the ‘ups and downs’ of living in Thailand?

It is like living anywhere you aren’t used to – there are good and bad. The pace here is slower, the amenities aren’t what many are used to, but it is a phenomenal country.

How are foreigners received in Thailand?

Everyone here is so welcoming. Everyone is so kind, courteous and respectful.

Anything else you would like to add?

I think the most important thing is if someone is thinking of being an expat, if the thought has crossed your mind you should probably try it and do it.

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