I’ve been living here in Thailand for three years, and because I’ve made a commitment to blogging and reporting my experiences continually online, getting and staying online is a big deal. Add to this that my husband is employed through and works with clients via the Internet, so reliable and consistent internet is a priority. So, here are a few things we’ve discovered. It took us several months before we finally got much of it down as the difference in how phone plans and providers work out here can be confusing, so this may help you speed that process up.
Home Base – Your Apartment or Hotel
If you bring your laptop with you to Thailand you should be able to connect to the Internet very easily. Almost all hotels and many restaurants have wifi, either “free” as a customer or for an additional charge. In restaurants there will often will be a password printed on a piece of paper near the table, but sometimes you may have to ask. Apartments and hotels are set up pretty much in the same way. Nearly each floor will (likely) have a hotspot antennae. Sometimes you might want to check out the signal strength of where your room is before selecting it, as you may be on the opposite end of the building from the antennae, or even a floor above it. The strength of these signals can vary throughout the day, so if it is low to begin with you may want to choose a different room if dependability is important to you.
A Network Sign on
Often, as was the case with our Chiang Mai apartment, for long term Internet you purchase it by the month. We paid 400 baht ($14) for a user and password code that lasted 30 days. When connecting to the Internet in the building in these cases you will come to a default screen that is the gateway to a Network, requesting sign in. Once you login your browser should remember the logins, so signing on is pretty simple. With a Network set up like this though only one device can be connected at a time (per code), so if you are sharing a room with someone (boyfriend, husband, etc) they too will have to purchase a monthly code (or you cannot be online at the same time on different devices), so it can get expensive. There is a way around this (see below – phone as hotspot), but it is slower than direct connection and a bit cumbersome.
Our apartment Network Sign on in Chiang Mai provided fairly strong, fast and dependable Internet. There were only a few outages in our 2 years there. The experience was that when you went to use it, most of the time it was reliable. Skype and Google Plus video hangout worked pretty well, I was happy to talk to my family who were spread out across the US and in Germany. These kinds of digital connections with loved ones can make a big difference during long time stays. Additionally, uploading videos required usually only a few hours – a few years ago on our first trip to Thailand it would take days!
Building Sign On
In our building in Pattaya the set up is slightly different. A monthly Internet fee (500 baht, $16) is just added onto the rent, there’s no limit to the users and the building password never changes. There is some convenience to this as log in is automatic, and even better more than one person and multiple devices can be connected at the same time.
Now this is restricted to only our experiences and I’m sure ex-pat forums are filled with irate comments about internet connection problems – for some reason, long term ex-pats often seem to hate where they are living, in Thailand, and just love to complain about “Thais” online: as a side suggestion, if you want to enjoy your time in Thailand stay away from these forums, aside from the occasional fact check or “where to find” suggestions. We’ve found Pattaya internet to be somewhat inconsistent. In our own building, when we first moved in, when the Internet would go down we may have to go to the front desk and let them know and they’d either reset the router or call the provider. We had a similar experience at the hotel we stayed at in February. Don’t be shy to ask, a quick router reboot can fix frustration in a hurry. But then there are periods (sometimes for 20 minutes or so) where the connection seriously slows, or stops, as if in a wave. What is interesting about this is that because we work with a mobile internet connection as back up (more of this below), we noticed that these periods can happen on mobile too at the same time. It is unclear if this is coincidental, but it appears not to be. It is also unclear if this happens everyday at specific times as it could be a Pattaya-wide network load issue. Just know that if there is a time that if you absolutely, positively have to be on the Internet in Pattaya, you may run into a lag that is hard to overcome. This has been an issue for my husband when he was online meetings for work.
Smart Phone – the Ultimate Necessity
If you are going to be connected dependably you will need to take advantage of a mobile connection. The purchase of a Smart Phone is pretty simple in Thailand. I don’t know about the phones of Europe, but American phones will not work on a Thai mobile plan, as far as I know. You can find a smart phone easily in large electronics sections of malls. In Chiang Mai Computer Land is a great example, as are certain floors reserved for electronics in larger malls. like Central. In Pattaya IT Center is also an electronics mall. Here you can find areas of kiosks devoted to smart phones, or computers, or cameras. I haven’t a clue what separates one seller from another on these floors and they all seem to offer identical items and services, sometimes even “borrowing” from each other when one kiosk doesn’t have the item in stock. We are non-bargainers, so maybe there is a way to haggle the price down, but most of the prices of electronics in Chiang Mai seem stable and widespread. We cross-checked a few times before purchase and found only a little variance. Sometimes a sales person would lower a price, but this seemed to be a pre-set discount figure and was offered almost immediately.
a quick video look inside one of these all-in-one electronic malls – Pattaya – shot a little while ago, this post as been in the writing for a bit
So when our first smart phone broke in Pattaya, a year ago in February (it was dropped) and we had to buy a new one on the fly in just an hour we found ourselves back online with a new device. It ran us about $200.
The Thai Mobile Plan – AIS
The way that mobile plans work is that they are separate from the phone, unlike in the United States. Phones are used with a SIM card that is separately purchased and inserted in the phone. This SIM card can be taken out and put in other devices, making the plan transferable. The card is about the size of a fingernail.
There are a variety of plans and companies offering them, so we can only speak to our own experience. AIS has been pretty fantastic. It has had very good satellite coverage even when we have gone to rural festival fights in the North or recently in Isaan. The plan I’d highly recommend is the 900 baht ($30) “unlimited” plan, if you can afford it. With this plan you get unlimited bandwidth for 30 days. With smaller plans you would have to monitor the amount of data sent and received, which for our purposes is not ideal.
Using Your Phone as a Camel
If you do opt for an Unlimited Data plan one of the best things is that you can turn your phone into a hotspot for your computer (or a tablet, a friend’s phone, etc). I don’t know if iPhones have this capability now (they didn’t a few years ago), but if you have an Android phone you can download the PDAnet app , purchase the Full Version for under $20, and turn your phone into a hotspot.
Because apartment and hotel Internet connections can be spotty at times for those that just have to be online this is an essential aid. Many times the building Internet has stopped or slowed and we just hop on over to the phone mobile connection. You just turn on the hotspot from the app and your laptop is connected at a pretty decent speed. When moving about in Thailand you can also piggy-back a tablet from the phone, and have twice the connectivity – again, being married with each of us online this is big plus. Also, any travel across the country gives you 2nd device connections through the phone, which is helpful.
Get an External Battery
One of the biggest aids in staying in touch when traveling is to purchase an external battery. They are about $50 or less (depending on capacity), and most can provide several charges to your phone or tablet. This was one of the biggest aids for us when driving the 6 hours to Isaan the first few times when we had to rely on GPS. The GPS navigation on our Samsung just chews up the battery and there is no way the phone would have lasted the entire trip without running full time on the external battery. Some rental cars will have a USB charging connection, some will not. It connects up to the phone through the typical USB phone charger cord, and is really easy to use, having saved us on multiple occasions already.
“Topping Up” In Thailand – and Plan Confusion
For a while “topping up” was a pretty stressful experience for us. We had the $30 unlimited plan from AIS, but the way it was set up in the beginning was not only confusing, but also expensive. At a certain date and hour the plan runs out. The plan will attempt to renew itself automatically, if you have the required amount in your phone credit (about 900 baht) this will go smoothly. For us confusion was produced on two levels. For one, warnings about the impending renewal date were coming in through in text messages in Thai. In the beginning I could not read Thai so there was some unclarity about what these messages were. Part of this confusion came because we were also getting text messages that were advertisements of some sort, and worse than that, you were charged (modestly) for opening them. (Ask whoever is helping you set up your phone to “opt out” of these ads.) In the first few months we would try to have our balance over 900 baht around the date of the renewal, but we unknowingly had our balance fall below the required threshold because we were opening text messages sent to us. Maddeningly, our plan would expire and we would have to go back to the Central mall and have to buy a whole new one, which is far more expensive than just “topping up” an existing plan. Then one time we resolved to not have that happen again, loaded our phone with plenty of baht at a local “top up” stand, but then found that our plan had expired just before our loading up, only to see all that baht pour out of the phone through a very expensive bandwidth rate. It was comical and very frustrating.
Ways to cut out the trial-and-error approach to getting the plan and “top up” to work are the following: when you buy your plan, ask the person helping you to opt out of all the text advertisements that automatically come to your phone. If they don’t understand you (English can be limited or non-existent), use the phone for a month and when you come back to top it up show them all the messages you’ve received and say mai ao (“don’t want”), and that should help. Don’t open them. You likely won’t be receiving text messages from unknown senders that are important and anyone who is a contact in your phone will come up with a name when they send you a text.
When you first purchase your plan, write down the date and time of your purchase somewhere that you can reference so you know when to top up. Go to a kiosk or “top up” station (these can be anywhere in Chiang Mai and virtually nowhere in Pattaya) a day in advance if you can. When you start to recognize the message that’s alerting you to top up you can rely on that, or you can just keep track on your own. Set a reminder or mark your calendar – it’s easy to forget when you’re brain-dead from training.
These two things should prevent all kinds of confusion. Now “topping up” for our phone is pretty simple. We don’t encounter unusual costs, we make sure we have enough on the phone a few days before renewal. On our phone you can see how much you have by simply dialing “Balance” in the contact list. This doesn’t cost you anything to check.
We had an amazing tech go-to lady at Dannapa Phone in Central in Chiang Mai, if you find yourself in need. Very patient. Spoke some English. They are in the back of the mall on the bottom floor and there’s an official AIS office down there as well if you have any major issues.
Topping up Stands and Kiosks
Whatever provider you choose, try to remember what their logo looks like. When you can recognize this logo, you’ll soon start seeing “top up” stands all over. You may be able to top up at any 7-11 (depending on provider) right at the cashier; you hand them money and enter your phone number into the credit-card swiper – full disclosure, I was never able to do this and I don’t know why, but I’ve seen other people do it. Otherwise, whoever is topping up your phone at a stand or kiosk has a log book where you write down your phone number and the amount you want to top up; hand them the money and they’ll call in the charge and it will appear on your phone in a matter of a minute or two. Many Thais write their number and amount in the book and drop the money without sticking around – this is 20 Baht at a time kind of top up, so I don’t recommend this approach if you’re doing unlimited plans. But it shows how ubiquitous a process it is. There are also automated top up machines but I don’t know how they work – the kids use them and again I think it’s for very small top ups (10-20 Baht at a time).
A Mobile Plan for Your Laptop
Now if you don’t want to go through the expense of having a smart phone you can also buy a SIM card with mobile plan and use it with a USB device. This would give your laptop mobile dependability from anywhere. The USB device was pretty inexpensive, if I recall, maybe $40? Because so much of my social media commitment is about sharing photos and video as close to real time as possible, a smart phone was the only solution. But the PDAnet app has saved us many-a-time.
Buying a Burner
If you don’t need a phone with internet connection, a simple pre-pay or pay-as-you-go phone that functions only as a phone is very inexpensive and easy. I one for my parents when they came to visit, so they could contact me from wherever they were and entered in the number for their hotel, the police, etc. The phone itself was maybe $10, the SIM card was a few dollars and I just put maybe 100 Baht on the plan so they could make calls. A phone like this can keep you connected to your trainers or friends in a very inexpensive and simple way.
If you have a phone that can download apps, it’s worth your effort to download “LINE,” which will allow free “chat” and phone calls through the app using your own phone number as contact. Many Thais use this and it’s how I communicate with a number of promoters.
It should be pointed out that many of the expenses that are associated with staying connected have been covered by the generous support of those who sponsored the founding of this website through my original Kickstarter campaign. Monthly fees, the replacement of devices, and more was made possible through that support. If you’d like to read more about the support of my friends, family and readers you can do so here. Thank you to everyone who has helped make 8limb.us, my writing and my fighting possible.