What it costs to study in Thailand
There are many foreign students actually studying in Thailand because could not afford to study in their own country, mainly due to the high cost of living over there. From them, we can draw a surprising experience: The smaller your budget, the faster you will learn living in a foreign culture: You will learn to live as the Thais live.
‘When in Rome, do it as the Romans do’ is an old saying in the western world. Since Bangkok is an international metropolis, you find any kind of luxury from your daily food and beverages to designer apartments on the 33rd floor of a high riser looking over Bangkok. Certainly, you can spend as much money as you have in Thailand, you won’t ever have a problem to get rid of your money, if you wish.
Here, we forget about what we call in Thailand ‘farang prices’ (‘farang’ is the term used for (mainly western, foreigners) and focus on the minimum budget to live a decent student life. If you know about the traps, and follow some simple rules, you can live in Thailand on a surprisingly small budget.
To understand how that comes, it is first necessary to forget about income and price structure in your own country. Income distribution in Thailand is very different between Bangkok and rural areas. The teenagers working at McDonalds in Bangkok would make around 350 to 400 baht a day (that means almost half a day’s salary for a Big Mac). An average waiter in Pattaya, another big city, will make about 50 Baht per hour, although the mandatory minimum wage by law is clearly higher - but they are not 'employed', and nobody pays any social security for them. In Isaan, the Northeast of Thailand, you get workers aged around 20 for 30 to 40 Baht per hour, without any social security, of course (all that by 2016).
As it is everywhere, prices go hand in hand with income. Income in Bangkok is higher, and so are the prices. Since most of you will study in Bangkok, we will focus on the costs in this metropolis. A simple dish, such as Fried Rice with Chicken, is currently about 45 Baht (that's slightly more than 1 USD or 1 €. With a bottle of Coke, you pay 60 Baht. By the way, this Fried Rice with Chicken is a real meal for 45 Baht, while one Cheeseburger at McDonalds costs about 50 percent more.
Just see the two sides of the coin: In your country, a dinner for two in a good Thai restaurant might well cost a serious amount of money. Here in Thailand, Thai food is everwhere, and most people buy on the street or on the market - small condos don't have a kitchen to cook anyway. So, Thai food is cheap - but any foreign food is as expensive as Thai food may be in your country.
Relationships between different categories of goods are also different than they might be in your country. Although a few years old, you may well assume that income didn't grow much until today. As of 2009, 28% of Thai households have an income of 12,000 baht a month and above; it may now be at 17,000 or a bit higher, but not much. 9% of the households have an income of 30,000 baht and above. With such little income, Living Costs must be cheap either.
That’s not necessarily true for a foreigner as well, however, for two reasons. First, since everybody in Thailand thinks you have a lot of money since you are a foreigner, there’s a clear tendency to charge you simply more for the same things. Secondly, Thais certainly learned over time that foreigners tend to go to places that seem to be a bit like in their own country, such as a restaurant looking like a western restaurant, or in Bangkok, just to Khaosan Road. A small portion of Spaghetti will cost you there well over 150 Baht, and a pizza with one glass of western beer quickly comes to 500 Baht. A small bottle of Warsteiner or Guiness is usually between 200 and 300 Baht, while the tasty Thai beer ‘Chang’ costs about 60 Baht for a big bottle (0.64 liter) in a 7-Eleven shop (and 'Chang' is a bit stronger than many western beers, meaning you might need less :-).
If you are willing to live like a Thai, you won’t need a big budget. If you insist on behaving like a tourist, you will need the same budget as you would need at home (200 Baht for a small bottle of western beer in a bar is about 7 USD or 5 € - that’s not what one would call ‘cheap’ back home, is it?).
At home, you don't visit an expensive Thai restaurant every day. Watch the reverse picture: In Thailand, western food is as expensive as Thai food is in your country. The best rule is 'go where the students go'. Try the food in the university canteen - you may be positively surprised how much you can eat for less than 1 USD or 1 €.
First: Cost of study
To enable you to determine your own budget, we will now have a look at the cost of study (tuition fees), and then on the Living Costs. There are some things you should know. First, not all universities spread the tuition fees equally over the semesters. Some universities charge you with more during the first semesters, while tuition fee is lower in the last semesters. Some programs are more expensive since heavy technology is needed, such as laboratories in applied chemistry or nanotechnology. If you compare standard programs, such as business administration, you may be surprised about the range of tuition fees.
Generally, higher tuition fees don’t necessarily mean better education. Demand for international programs in Thailand is high due to the inflation of academic degrees over time. There’s almost no white collar job to get anymore without a bachelor degree - today, you need a Master. With about half a million graduates leaving Thai universities per year, international programs became an alternative for getting a better starting position.
Since everybody in Thailand knows that international programs are more costly then standard programs in Thai, many say that some universities just cash in on that.
Even for a high tuition fee, the only international element in such a program might be a US college textbook. The most important single factor of good university education is the quality of the professors. When looking a bit deeper into the different tuition fees, you will quickly find out that some of the cheapest programs offer you 90% coverage of all courses by western university professors, while some of the most expensive programs are not worth their money at all.
Be aware of hidden costs! An important cost factor might be the additional payments, such as for textbooks. You will want to make sure that you calculate such expenditure as well. Again, in some of the cheapest programs, all textbooks, handouts, academic and administrative fees are included, while in some of the most expensive programs, you need additional budget to cover these hidden costs. Not all universities are eager to publish the real cost of study in order to look a bit better against competition.
Finally, there are rankings on the Internet of ‘name universities’ against ‘no-name universities’ in Thailand. Brand name universities exist in every country; they are more attractive and promise better job opportunities after graduation. Please be aware that this believe often applies only within the particular society, rather than all over the world. There is no reason to believe that a name university offers a better international program than a no-name university does.
Check the credentials of the professors, and don’t get lured by a stylish campus or pictures of beautiful girls (actually, they are all beautiful, on every campus).
The vast majority of all Thai students in Bangkok live in a one room apartment with their own bathroom. While Thai students love to share their rooms (most Thais don't like doing anything alone), you probably will prefer to have a ‘safe haven’ on your own. A 30-40 square meter apartment you will get in a modern and well-maintained building for around 6000 Baht a month (see How to find an apartment). With wireless ADSL (very widespread), water, and power supply, it may sum up to 7,500 Baht per month – if you get adjusted to using a fan instead of air condition. Heavy use of air condition can easily double your monthly expenditure since power consumption was sure not an argument when purchasing your room’s air-con. Electricity bills of 6,000 or even 8,000 baht were reported by foreign students - who later admitted that they never switched the air-con off, and adjusted it to about 22 degrees Celsius. That's the hard way to learn it.
You may want to make sure that your apartment is close to the campus. Compared to the cost of a dinner, taxis are quite expensive and usually stick (with their meter running, of course) in the same traffic jam as a bus does. The most expensive busses are the air-conditioned ones. Even with currently rising prices, you won’t need to pay more than 20 or 30 Baht for a long ride.
By the way, riding by tuk-tuk may still appear nice to you, but between all the busses and trucks with their black smoke, and with you as a foreigner being the target of all sorts of scams and excessive prices, you won't do that often - you will learn fast that tuk-tuks are something for stupid tourists.
By the way, don’t dream about buying a cheap bicycle for the way to the campus until you know Bangkok traffic and climate…
Make sure you have a good international health insurance. Visiting a doctor is as cheap as medicine is, but they are vboth cheap for Thais and foreigners who can speak Thai. There are hospitals targeting westerners, of course, and many are even certified after U.S. or German hospital standards - but then, they have U.S. or German prices. For that price, you can expect nurses and doctors to speak English fluently.
Certainly, in the ‘land of smiles’ good looking teeth are of highest importance for everybody. If you go with a Thai fellow student acting as your interpreter into a Thai hospital (equally modern as the western oriented one but probably less beautifully looking), the extraction of a tooth will cost you about 300 Baht, and the denture comes at about 2,500 Baht.
In Thailand, many things are different when it comes to expected cost structures. With the low salaries mentioned above, many Thai people make a very decent living. To run on a budget just needs you to learn how they do it. This learning effect causes a lot of what we call ‘living experiences in a foreign culture’.
There are numerous other fields where westerners spent unnecessarily much money. Some are obvious, some you need to see in reality to understand. Unfortunately, we can’t mention them all here. However, we think you've got a good idea about expenditure in Thailand already.
When international students made the photo stories about foreign students in Bangkok, they also asked them for their monthly over-all expenses. Most of them have budgets ranging between 10,000 and 20,000 Baht per month, still allowing them for the evening beer, apparel, hobbies, and cigarettes.
Let us finish this article with a word about traveling in Thailand. Sure you know the cost of a holiday in one of the most developed tourist destinations in Thailand already. When you’re here, try something else: Accept the offers of your Thai fellow students to join them for a trip to the beach. They travel a lot, and they know to reach the most beautiful places on a budget. A weekend at the beach with a lot of fun may cost you well below 1,500 Baht including transportation.
You see, there are a lot of reasons to 'do it as the Romans do’!