Tired of Israel’s ‘pressure cooker,’ 100s of families lay new roots in Thailand
On a sunny afternoon, Dicla Shaulian sits on the sidelines of a soccer field on the small Thai island of Ko Pha Ngan, chatting with another Israeli mother as she waits for her 11-year-old son to finish practice. Roosters crow in the background and palm trees sway on the other side of the road, which is lined with dropped coconuts.
A business developer turned exercise coach, the 43-year-old Shaulian arrived from Israel with her husband — an entrepreneur in the tech industry — and three children on a one-way ticket 10 months ago.
“We had a good life in Israel but we wanted out of the rat race,” Shaulian tells The Times of Israel. “We came for a year and decided to stay another year. The Israelis here created an amazing, warm, supportive, accepting community. The way life is structured here and the fact that it’s in a different time zone allows for more family time, which we were longing for.”
The island, unbeknownst even to some Thais, is seeing a dramatic influx of Israelis, who began arriving there about 30 years ago when there was no electricity. In the past year, more than 100 Israeli families moved to Ko Pha Ngan, joining the several hundred already there.
Shaulian admits to feeling guilty about leaving Israel, especially in regard to taking her children away from their grandparents and being unable to participate in the current anti-overhaul protests. However, she adds, her parents visited for three weeks, during which time they were together from morning to night — something that did not happen in Israel.
Many Israelis call the island a paradise — a sentiment reflected in the names of local businesses such as Bliss and Heaven. The kind, friendly locals, beautiful beaches and dazzling sunsets, warm weather, sense of safety, cheap prices, and food literally dropping off trees add to the charm.
A Chabad rabbi and his family arrived this year, a sure sign the Jewish population of the island is growing; the Passover seder they organized attracted 500 people. Before their arrival, local Israelis had organized seders and holiday events, and a synagogue/kosher restaurant called the Israel House has been in operation for 15 years. Chabad imports kosher food in containers from Israel, Argentina and Uruguay, while kosher chicken is slaughtered according to Jewish law in Bangkok and sent to the island.
Israelis on Ko Pha Ngan are mostly young, middle-class parents from throughout Israel and represent the gamut of the country’s many ethnic groups. They are tech workers, yoga teachers, businesspeople, and professionals. Most cite Israel’s pressure cooker atmosphere, high prices and regularly gridlocked traffic — along with a desire for adventure — as reasons for relocating.
“Many Israelis arrived here during Corona,” says yoga teacher Dalit Berger, 49, a mother of three with a big, warm smile who moved to the island 10 years ago. “The Israelis who came wrote blogs and people began to understand that Ko Pha Ngan is not just for hippies from Pardes Hannah but for conventional families as well — especially because after COVID, people realized they could work online from anywhere and live another kind of life.
“When we got to Ko Pha Ngan, I walked around the streets and the villages and I felt at home,” she says. “We fell in love.”
Smitten Israelis have even written two popular songs about Ko Pha Ngan.
The island had one international school when the Bergers arrived. Now there are five.
“We’re the first group of Israeli parents who decided as a group to stay here,” says Berger, whose children are 9, 14 and 17. “Before, everyone would leave after their kids finished sixth grade because there was no international high school. But we resolved we’d find an education for our kids.”
Her son is in the first group of Israelis doing matriculation exams in an international school on the island.
Like many Israelis on Ko Pha Ngan, the Bergers have a work visa. Others are on business visas which can cost up to NIS 12,000 (roughly $3,200) for the first year, or student visas. Some say they encountered frustrating bureaucracy when obtaining their visas, others say the process was smooth. Citizenship, according to the Royal Thai Embassy in Tel Aviv, is reserved for children of Thai nationals.
Despite the rapid development she has seen — the first big grocery stores, more roads and buildings — Berger says, “there is a connection here to spirit, to nature, to the simple life that very much speaks to us.”
The Bergers opened Yoga House, which offers classes, accommodations, a vegetarian restaurant, a garden and a swimming pool. Other successful businesses owned by Israelis on the island include the Wonderland retreat center and Bustan, a high-end restaurant. There’s even a restaurant named Capara.
Local Thais seem to have welcomed the influx.
“Some Israeli tourists are rude but the ones who live here and understand the culture, they are fine,” says Mata Ketkuntjongphaisan, 37, who works in the tourism industry.
Maria, a guest house owner who joined the many Russians who moved to the island after the invasion of Ukraine, said the influx of foreigners may feel threatening to some locals but they also benefit from the creation of new businesses and job opportunities.
“The Thai people have a different attitude toward life,” explains Maria, who asked that her last name be withheld. “The expression here is ‘sabai, sabai’ — relax and enjoy. And they feel your emotions, who you are. If you’re a good person, no matter where you’re from, they accept you.”
Suli Avraham, 54, grew up in a creative Moroccan-French-Spanish family in the southern Israeli city of Beersheba. From the age of 7, her father took her for walks in the desert and asked her questions about life and the universe. Her mother hosted Bedouin women, and Avraham spent time in the art studio her school turned into after hours, which profoundly affected her life. As an adult, she worked in the Sinai Desert and in India, and saw “there was another way of living.”
“I’d come back from India and go to the corner store on Sunday morning and wow, it was NIS 100 [$27] for a few rolls and milk,” Avraham says. “I started to feel I couldn’t live in Israel: the traffic, the stress, the prices… I had a friend who moved here and I saw her life and I thought, I would love to have that life… I arrived with my three kids six months before COVID started… I found a home for my spirit here.”
In addition to a line of handmade organic clothes called Mamalika, Avraham opened Naranaya, a Waldorf/green school that stresses emotional support for children. It has grown from nine to 80 children in 18 months. Her vision is to grow “green leaders.”
She sees a change in the types of Israelis moving to Ko Pha Ngan.
“Lately, there are more businesspeople, but ones with open hearts,” she says.
A biotech engineer by training, Uriel Sadeh, 37, found he had a gift for teaching and changed careers. A native of the central Israeli town of Yehud, Sadeh was a commander in the paratroopers and a graduate of Ben-Gurion University. He arrived in Ko Pha Ngan a year ago with his wife and toddler son, wanting to go on a family journey and see the world.
He has since established a youth movement “that creates safe spaces for teens to blossom,” he says. Most participants are Israeli, but he also invites Thais and the children of Burmese foreign workers to join his groups free of charge.
Like others, Sadeh says his parents miss him and his family but are happy that they found their place.
“I see something new happening in the world,” Sadeh says. “Families of digital nomads are creating communities of expats in Chang Mai, Portugal, Ibiza, Bali… The world has become small. The world is home.”