Life in Korea was pretty awesome. Life in Thailand has been pretty good as well. If you’re tossing them around and thinking which one to choose (or choose next), take a look at my own comparison.
I’ve chosen eleven elements of life that are (or ought to be) essential to any expat’s life. Your life is different, of course, but understand my bias as a white male, married early thirtysomething with a passion for traveling.
As you would expect, staying in the bigger parts of the city means plenty of variety, albeit at a slightly higher price. Korea excels in catering to foodies across the board, or perhaps just the folks that enjoy snapping pictures of their latte art and spaghetti. Thailand’s greatest strength is the near-ubiquity of street food, found along almost any populated area’s sidewalk or alley. The price is tough to beat – I’ve yet to pay more than 75 baht (about 2.50 USD, at the current rate of 30 baht to the dollar) for delicious, no-frills fare. When it’s time to splurge, Bangkok offers as much variety on the high-end as Seoul, and hotels often have multiple choices available without ever leaving the air-conditioning.
2. Getting in and getting started
Both countries offer direct train lines from the airport to the city center. If you’re getting started without the help of a local, however, you’ll discover Thailand has plenty of English speakers – and unlike many Koreans, they’re not afraid to use it. There’s plenty of things to watch out for, naturally, but making a trip to the nearest department store is straightforward either way. Thailand’s cheaper cost of living – and a more Western-friendly sense of apartments – means there’s no need to come up with thousands of dollars just for your deposit.
3. Finding a job
Teaching English is the day job for plenty of folks in both countries, and there are plenty of good and bad jobs around them both. Korea’s immigration process has tightened significantly in recent years, while Thailand’s remains somewhat loose in comparison. This is a double-edged sword, since the jobs most worth taking require the most in terms of references and thought during the interview process. While I’ve not heard as many horror stories of teaching in Thailand, I haven’t been looking for them, either. Korea’s English industry, declining as it is, still remains the place where you’ll make more money and stand a better chance of being treated fairly.
It’s worth noting that jobs outside of the teaching field remain difficult to find or land in either country, while (legitimately) starting your own business remains a difficult proposition in either case.
4. Traveling around the big city
Both Seoul and Bangkok have a fair number of public transportation options to get you around the city. Seoul wins by a landslide with an easy to understand system, English audio announcements at every stop, and a system that enables free transfers from bus to subway to another bus. Having hundreds of bus routes, hundreds more subway stations, and English everywhere means you can focus on what to do once you arrive. While cheaper overall, Bangkok can’t fairly compete in terms of coverage, availability of information, or frequency.
Advantage: Seoul (er, Korea)
5. Traveling around the country
Traveling extensively around Korea (and keeping up a prodigious rate of traveling around Thailand) means you see what works, what doesn’t work, and when things just fall apart. In both cases it’s hard to get around the rural or less touristy areas, but in Thailand’s case a lack of markings make it all but impossible to know where bus stops are. Train timetable are better seen as suggestions rather than precise, definite times, and breakdowns happen often with the decades-old machine.
6. Learning the language
My wife got the gift of language, not me. If you’re seriously interested in learning the local language, any number of schools exist at all the quality levels you’d expect. If you’d rather learn the survival set of vocabulary, you’re much better off in Korea. While both alphabets can be learned, Korea’s has half the possible letters, and is transliterated much more predictably. Thailand doesn’t yet have an official guide to transliterate the language, despite a great need for it, and the tones can complicate comprehension.
7. The nightlife
As you’d expect the nightlife varies greatly whether you’re in the capital city or a countryside city. Assuming you’re in Seoul or Busan, there’s no shortage of live music to go along with a good drink menu. Original music isn’t everywhere, but it’s far easier to find in Seoul than in Bangkok, where yesterday’s hits become tonight’s repertoire by most house bands. Live cover bands demarcate a tourist area or a place that is almost guaranteed to charge more for drinks around Thailand, though it usually ensures an English menu with Western-friendly offerings.
Clubs remain bound to a handful of areas in Bangkok and a few wilder tourist attractions (Pattaya being one of them). You can safely expect a cover charge in the hundreds of baht and a fairly strict code (in most cases, no shorts or sandals for the guys). While Korea has never had the reputation for parties that Thailand has earned, the quantity – and quality – of music festivals and DJ’s coming to town continues to rise. Price often reflects pretentiousness in both countries, and is no guarantee of quality or service. While you’re likely to find any sort of companionship you like in either countries, it’ll be more blatantly visible in Thailand. Whether that’s annoying or worth enjoying I’ll leave to you.
Advantage: tie, but with a personal edge going to Korea.
8. The beverages
This goes beyond beer, but it’s one of the first things most anyone tries when visiting a new country. Korea’s own brews are rightfully given the nicknames they deserve – Cass and Hite are only worth drinking if you have little concern for taste, while Max is only marginally better. Thailand’s own Singha doesn’t seem to get much attention either way, but is cheap and easily found at virtually every convenience store across the country. Chang and Leo are cheaper, and taste like it, though both lagers work well when paired with street food or happy hour appetizers. Both countries have a mostly imported craft-brewing scene, although Korea’s is easier to find and more established as a force to be reckoned with. Imports are cheaper in Thailand, and mixed drinks remain part of any decent bar’s core menu. Availability is an issue in Thailand, though: while any 7-11 and grocery worth their cash registers will have an ample selection, it’s unlawful for them to sell alcohol from 2-5pm or after midnight. Bars, while officially expected to close, are more likely to pull the shutters down part way and ask their resident drinkers to keep the noise down. It’s a far cry from parts of Korea that don’t stop serving until the sun comes up.
Advantage: tie, with a personal edge going to Thailand.
9. Ways to stay long-term
Being married to a local opens the door to garnering a residency visa in both countries, as does teaching English. Thailand, however, offers up a more liberal education visa than the one that exists in Korea. Getting it – and keeping it – does require dealing with Immigration occasionally, but the schools have every incentive to make the process as painless as possible. Both countries discourage staying long-term on tourist visas, though in Korea’s case it seems less difficult.
10. The weather
Ergh. One of the few things that’s completely out of a city’s control, yet one that may make or break your experience. Seoul (and Korea’s) ’four distinct seasons’ are indeed cold, warm, hot, and cool, respectively, though spring and fall’s actual season seems to last a fraction of the time they should. There isn’t a dramatic difference across Korea – if it’s cold in the north it’ll be cold (maybe cool) in the south. Even sub-tropical Jeju isn’t more than a handful of Celsius off of Seoul’s temperatures.
There’s a bit more difference in temperatures across Thailand, although HOT is the best word to describe most of the year. Call them the dry and rainy seasons if you like, but HOT will describe Bangkok year-round. This is not the place to bring your fine collection of suit jackets, or even to wear those finely tailored suits you can have made in any number of tourist traps.
11. Cultural differences
And so the can of worms is opened. Korea’s xenophobia, or Thailand’s opportunistic two-tiered pricing system for virtually everything without a fixed price? Is it better to live with the mindset that you’ll never become a local, or better to be on guard from being ripped off almost anytime you leave the house? The institutions in both countries go a long way in perpetuating the stereotypes, and the average everyday citizen isn’t helping. Korea epitomizes passive-aggressiveness, whether it’s creating excuses as to why something can’t be done, or saying whatever it takes to save face. To say straight talk isn’t Korea’s specialty is no more surprising than reports that water is indeed wet.
Thailand’s main issue beyond an unequal pricing system is the lackadaisical attitude towards work and the overarching ’Mai pen rai’ attitude of everything’s OK, or ’never mind’. Both countries would be better without their hangups, although there are enough other political issues going on to ensure these aren’t tackled for a long time to come. Korea has a stronger incentive to open things up, and the community of long-time expats can offer advice to comply with the system or help you get around it.
Advantage (?): Korea
And so the score is Thailand 3, Korea 6, with two ties. That doesn’t detract from the fun times found in Thailand, of course, or the interesting places to see around South Korea.
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