From the New York Rat Race to Early Retirement in Thailand
“Right now, I feel blessed. I’m doing what I want, where I want, when I want,” says Ellen Makleroy.
The Florida native is sipping an iced coffee surrounded by video and photography gear on the shaded deck of the Zanook wakeboarding park outside of Bangkok, Thailand. Behind her, wakeboarders are jumping ramps and doing tricks in the purpose-built facility.
Ellen’s come to photograph the riders as part of her retirement hobby. Although she is a few generations older than the oldest rider, the American expat, now in her 60s, doesn’t look out of place thanks to her pink-tinted hair and upper-arm tattoos. “I found a new look a few years ago when I began spending more time in Bangkok,” she explains.
Prior to this new beginning in Thailand, Ellen spent more than 30 years working in financial legal compliance in Manhattan. “That’s where the money is. I never wanted to live there, but I did want to make real money, which you have to just to survive in New York,” she says. “A few years ago, though, my family, friends, and even some of my coworkers started to plead with me to stop working. I was a bit of a workaholic.”
A bit of a workaholic is a huge understatement. Ellen was spending up to 80 hours a week in the office, and then putting in more hours when she got home. But when she hit 60, she decided to walk away from it all. At that time, she owned a condo in the Azores, a Portuguese archipelago in the Atlantic. She’d bought the place some years before as an investment, with no intention of ever living in it. But when she stopped working, she felt she needed a change of scenery and decided to give living overseas a try.
In retirement, Ellen started to run, took up fishing, and got into cooking. But it was photography that became her true passion, and in particular the underwater variety.
Underwater photography brought Ellen to the Philippines, Indonesia, and Thailand in search of reefs and wrecks to photograph. “I’m not taking selfies with my phone and posting them to Instagram. I’m not trying to be a social media influencer and get sponsorship deals. If anything, I’d like to show my photographs in galleries,” she says.
Ellen fell in love with Thailand and decided to buy a condo in Bangkok. Before the pandemic, she was spending about six months in Thailand’s capital and six months in the Azores on a schedule to avoid the worst of the hot and rainy seasons in each.
Living costs in Thailand are low by North American standards, she says. “On a normal day, I’ll have some local lunch for about $3, maybe go to a movie for about the same. I love shopping in the day markets for fresh fruits and veggies and seafood. It’s incredibly cheap.”
Ellen notes that even though she is now maintaining two homes and (pandemic permitting) flies between Portugal and Thailand at least twice a year, her monthly expenditure is much smaller than it would have been if she’d remained in Manhattan. She uses the cost of a taxi ride as a comparison. “Half an hour by taxi in New York is about $30, in Portugal $10, in Thailand less than $5,” she says. Ellen maintains an international insurance plan to cover any emergencies. Her monthly expenses vary widely between months when she’s stationary and months when she’s traveling. “I probably spend much more than your normal expat retiree in Bangkok—about $3,000 a month. It’s less than that in Portugal,” she says. “If I’m traveling the number increases, but when I think about all the years I sat at a desk crunching numbers and reading emails from lawyers, I am guilt free.”
By John McMahon