If you’re a digital nomad, you know that Chiang Mai is one of the most popular destinations for nomads to work and live. A very low cost of living, combined with modern amenities and tasty Thai food are some of the reasons digital nomads come here. And because it’s so popular, many groups have formed for socializing and networking.
Before I came, I read many interesting and helpful blog posts by other nomads, and also got advice from a friend who spent time here last year. All of that made it pretty easy to get set up and start living and working.
Looking for a place to live
As I do in most new locations, I reserved a guest house online for the first five nights (The Britannia), relying on Agoda reviews to make my choice. Once I arrived, I spent time looking in person for an apartment to rent for my two months here.
There are two areas I considered. The “old city” — inside the moat that surrounds the city center, and Nimman, just west of the old city and known as an area of hip, trendy cafes and shops.
The old city would have been my first choice (that’s where my guest house was for the first week), but I wasn’t able to find anything in my price range that would rent by the month and that wasn’t already booked.
Eating out as a vegetarian
At first I thought I would try for a place with a kitchen, but that is rare here. Most visitors and some locals eat every meal out, since it’s so cheap and tasty, and food carts are everywhere. I was a bit worried about finding enough vegetarian food (I’ve been a vegetarian since 1990), and I also have a life-long problem with migraines (often triggered by MSG, soy sauce, or balsamic vinegar). So I’m very selective about what I eat. I figured that eating most meals at home would make sense.
But it turns out that it’s very easy to be vegetarian here. There are many vegetarian cafes, and many other places that have a vegetarian section on their menu. So I realized that I could get by without a kitchen, which made my search easier. As I’ve done in other places without full kitchens, I bought a small rice cooker/veggie steamer so that I could cook veggies and rice or potatoes at home from time to time.
After reading many reviews online, and visiting a couple of places that looked promising but were completely booked, I decided to check Airbnb. It’s usually not a cost-effective choice for Chiang Mai, where the best and cheapest places can be found in person. Many sites on Airbnb are overpriced for the market here. But I got lucky. I found a place that looked good, contacted the host, and he invited me to come see the place.
It’s called P.T. Residence. I ended up renting a small studio with a little balcony, on the 3rd floor of a modern building. The wi-fi worked well, and so did the air conditioning. There was a long counter, the length of the room, a king-sized bed, a refrigerator, a small love-seat, and a nice bathroom. A flat-screen TV with cable channels was included (not something I care about).
It was about 8,000 baht, the equivalent of about $220 per month, a great deal! There were extra charges for electricity and water, but that didn’t amount to a lot. It was hot while I was here, so I used the AC every night and some during the day. Mostly I was out during the day working in coffee shops. The electricity for the first month added up to about $75, and that was worth it to me. The water charge was only a few dollars.
The owner gave me a discount because there was some noise caused by a project to install new built-in furniture on the floor above. The noise was only during the day, and since I’m rarely home then, I decided to take it. The project lasted for about five weeks and I sometimes heard pounding upstairs when I slept late, but mostly it didn’t bother me. They had already updated the third floor where I was staying with modern furniture, so I guess they were finishing the rest of the building during October.
We ended up doing the payment transaction outside of Airbnb, to keep the price down for both the landlord and for me. I was able to pay by credit card, which I like, because I get points for frequent flyer miles when I use my card (Barclay Arrival World MasterCard, with no international transaction fees). The apartment was quiet and comfortable, though the mattress was a bit on the hard side (as is common in Thailand).
The Nimman neighborhood is the area around Nimmanhaemin Road, known for coffeeshops, art galleries, cafes, bars, massage studios, and gift shops. I would have preferred staying in the old city, with its winding little streets, and beautiful wats (temples) around every corner, but this neighborhood also has advantages.
I could care less about night life, since I don’t drink or go to bars. That’s the reason many people want to be in this neighborhood. I do like having so many good coffee shops to work in and places to eat a cheap vegetarian lunch. This neighborhood was great for that.
I also like going to the movies often, and there was a mall nearby with a large cinema complex showing quite a few movies in English with Thai subtitles (I saw The Martian, The Walk, The Intern, Spectre, and The Little Prince). It’s a modern mall with a very nice theater complex, as you would find in any big city. Good seating, good sound system, etc.
One interesting thing that happens after all the previews and before the movie starts, is that they play a short movie about the king of Thailand, which everyone stands up for. That led me to read more about respect (and reverence) for the king, which is an interesting topic. They also play the national anthem every day at 8am and 6pm in public places over loudspeakers. People stop what they are doing and stand still for that. Because I was curious, I read the free Kindle sample of this book: The King Never Smiles: a Biography of Thailand’s Bhumibol Adulyadej. It’s worth a read if you are curious about Thai culture and why he is seen as almost Buddha-like.
Places to work: coffee shops and co-working
I ended up finding a few favorite coffee shops to work in, very close to my apartment — Kaweh Cafe, Healthy B Cafe, Chuen Juice Bar, and N.Kee37.5. I like to work in coffee shops because it gets me out of the house every day, and because being around other people who are working puts me in the mood to work.
About once a week I took either a songthaew (red trucks that serve as shared taxis) or a tuk-tuk over to the old city and went to a few favorite vegetarian or mostly vegetarian cafes there: Dada Kafe, Taste from Heaven, and Bubbles Live.
My favorite place to work in the old city is Punspace, an excellent co-working space. I considered buying one of their ongoing plans, but since I only used it about once a week, I just paid the daily rate (229 baht, about $6.40). Punspace (the Thae Pae Gate location), is great because of the following: good air conditioning (many cafes near there don’t have AC, and it was hot while I was there), good wi-fi, large tables with comfortable, ergonomic chairs, a very quiet atmosphere, a fridge for storing your takeout food, a supply of beverages in the fridge that you can buy, a good coffee shop downstairs, and occasional events (though I didn’t go to any). I never got around to trying their Nimman location, since there were so many good coffee shops with AC and wi-fi in that neighborhood.
During my two months in Chiang Mai I began and finished a 20,000 word technical report for the American Library Association. It will be published sometime in 2016 and is called, Trends in Mobile Learning: Accessibility, Ecosystems, Content Creation. Learn more in my blog post: Advancing Accessibility with Mobile. It felt good to have a project that I could start and finish during those two months.
Getting around by tuk-tuk and songthaew
If the weather had not been so hot (low 90s almost every day, with high humidity), I would have walked more. It would probably take about 45 minutes to walk briskly from where I lived to the part of the old city I liked, but it was just too hot to be fun. So I used the shared red trucks called songthaews, and sometimes a private tuk-tuk. They were both good options and kind of fun, too. The songthaew cost about 20 baht (55 cents), and a tuk-tuk usually ranged from 100 -140 baht ($3-4 dollars). With a songthaeow you tell them where you want to go and if they are going that way (with the other people already inside, they will say yes, and if not you can wait for the next one. They are all over, so you never have to wait long. Just hop in the back, sit on one of the two benches facing the middle, and when you get out, pay 20 baht (about $.55). With a tuk-tuk you tell the driver where you want to go and they will suggest a price, which you can usually negotiate down a bit. Regular taxi service is usually only used for longer trips, such as from the airport into the city — you rarely see them around, because everyone uses songthaews instead.
The only thing that was sometimes difficult, was that you need to tell the driver where you want to go, and most of them don’t speak English. So you need to be able to say the name of a place they recognize. Sometimes it worked to show them a Google map, but usually they didn’t quite get that, for some reason. My apartment building was not something they recognized, so I learned to say the name of the street and tell them which cross street it was near: Siri Mangkalajarn, near Soi 9. To go to the old city, I always just said I wanted to go to “Thae Pae Gate,” which is a landmark everyone knows and near the places I wanted to hang out.
Scooters and bicycles
Many people rent motor scooters when they come here. It’s cheap and there are rental places everywhere. I used to own a little Suzuki scooter in Boston back in the 80s and it was great fun and easy to get around the crazy traffic of Boston by taking side streets. But the traffic is even crazier here and I didn’t trust myself to navigate unfamiliar streets, and deal with other drivers (cars and scooters). I’m not the only person who feels this way, see “Why I am NOT renting a scooter or a motorbike in Southeast Asia.”
I thought about renting a bicycle, but again, the traffic is crazy and I decided not to. It’s fine for leisurely riding on little streets inside the old city, but for going back and forth between my neighborhood and the old city on very busy streets, it didn’t seem like it would be fun.
The weather in October/November
According to many blogs and websites, November is the start of the cool season in Chiang Mai, with highs in the 70s F. I’m writing this on November 15 (and finishing on Nov. 26), and so far every day it has been in the 80s and often low 90s, and humid. I would have preferred to be here when it’s cooler, but my schedule didn’t work out that way. If I come again, I’ll wait until at least mid-November, in the hope of cooler weather.
It rained every once in a while, but not frequently, mostly in October. One day it rained so much that when I was walking home from a movie at the mall (a 10-minute walk), the roads were flooded near my apartment, so that to cross the street anywhere would mean over-the-ankle water (which looked quite dirty, slippery, and fast-moving). I somehow managed to pick my way around broken sidewalks that tend to peter out (it’s not pedestrian friendly here, often you need to walk in the busy street), and then hop on a songthaew for the last few blocks, which kept me out of the deep water (that was actually kind of fun).
If I was a morning person, I would have spent more time walking around in the early morning, when it was still a reasonable temperature. But I’m not, and by mid-morning, it was always hot. Going out after dark was much nicer, but still humid. I tend to mostly go out during the day and have dinner at home in the evening, then relax and chat online with friends, read, or watch movies on Netflix.
One of the best things about Chiang Mai, especially the old city, is all the wats (temples) everywhere. Each is beautiful in its own way, and it’s fun to happen upon one around a corner, behind a wall, tucked away. Once you enter the grounds, there are usually several buildings, and you can usually go inside during the day and see beautiful Buddha statues. Be sure to take off your shoes, as they do everywhere in Thailand when entering houses or temples. For women there are many signs warning you to not wear shorts and sleepless tops. You are always supposed to cover your shoulders and wear long pants or skirts, out of respect.
Many of the wats have what are called “monk chats,” where you can chat with the monks and ask questions. It’s an interesting way to learn about their culture and beliefs, and the monks like it as a way to practice their English. I did this one evening, and since I was the only person who came, I ended up chatting for over an hour with a 24-year-old monk named ChertChai. It was fun and interesting! I asked him many questions about his life.
I will write more about the monk chat in another post.
Another highlight of my time in Chiang Mai was a visit to Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary where they bring elephants who have been abused, so they can recover from injuries and have a good life. It’s a fun and interesting day trip, totally worth going. See my photos of the trip on Flickr.
If you want a peaceful oasis from the bustle of the city, visit Clay Studio Coffee in the Garden, a wonderful outdoor cafe and place to buy beautiful terra-cotta buddhas. See more of my photos on Flickr: Clay Studio Coffee in the Garden.
The old and the new side-by-side
One of the most striking things from my point of view is the combination of old (ancient) and new things, all in one city. You can visit a wat damaged from an earthquake in 1545, and then go to a current movie in an upscale mall. It’s all there, in one interesting city.
Traffic and pollution
When the weather is very hot and humid, traffic and pollution feels even worse. As all over Southeast Asia, there is a lot of traffic and pollution from fumes. On many busy streets, which you need to cross on foot, usually without the help of traffic lights, there is a constant rush of motor scooters, cars, songthaews, and tuk-tuks, with a few bicycles thrown in.
Since they drive on the opposite side of the road from the U.S., you need to remember to look to the right first, when crossing. That is hard to remember! It’s so automatic for me to look left first. At many times of day there is no letup in traffic, so you have to slowly start to walk out when there is the slightest gap, go halfway until another slight gap and then slowly make your way across. Drivers are used to this, so if you don’t run, just slowly keep a steady pace, they will adjust to avoid you. I’m finally used to it, I think! There was a very busy road in front of my apartment complex, that I need to cross every day to get to all the coffee shops and cafes. So I got a lot of practice.
Not everything is beautiful
If you only looked at the pretty pictures that everyone posts, you wouldn’t have a full view of what it’s like here. Of course, that’s true for any city. I wanted to show you a few of the less-pretty scenes, so you can get a feel for what it’s like.
Something I noticed everywhere is the large number of wires on poles and hanging down into the street. I read somewhere that in Thai cities, often they leave all the wires for old telephone lines after they are shut off, and just keep adding new ones as needed. Every so often I would have to duck to avoid getting hit on the head by a hanging wire. This was disconcerting, especially when it rained. They are probably dead lines, but who knows?
Another thing I noticed was many construction sites, rarely roped off or anything, you just had to pick your way around them, with pipes or wires laying across the sidewalk. I noticed workers on these sites every day of the week, including weekends, and sometimes with their small children playing in the construction site.
Taking care of everyday life tasks
When you are living nomadically, you need to find places to take care of routine tasks like getting your hair cut and your teeth cleaned. Chiang Mai is a good place to do both, because the prices are so low (compared to the U.S.). I had a good experience getting a filling at Grace Dental Clinic, a very modern facility that came highly recommended. I got my hair color touched up and bangs cut at New York New York Salon, and was very happy with it. It was right next door to one of my favorite coffee shops for working, so that was a plus as well. It’s not the cheapest place for a haircut in Chiang Mai, but they do excellent work, so it’s worth it to me. And it’s still much cheaper than what I would pay anywhere in the U.S.
Meeting other digital nomads
Chiang Mai is a great place to meet other digital nomads of all kinds, freelancers, entrepreneurs, remote workers and so on. There are meetup groups, Facebook groups, coffee clubs, coworking events and more. I got together with some fellow nomads who I met when I was in Budapest (via nomad meetups there) — it seems everyone comes to Chiang Mai eventually! I also met up with someone who I met several years ago at a conference in the U.S. — because of Facebook it’s easy to see who is currently in the same city as you are.
You can meet for learning and networking, and also for socializing. I enjoyed the Nomad Coffee Club and went twice, and also enjoyed a few small outings with my nomadic friends.
Here’s my list of what I liked best and least about my time in Chiang Mai.
- low prices, especially for housing
- good food, including many vegetarian options
- lots of coffee shops everywhere with free wi-fi
- good co-working spaces
- beautiful Buddhist wats and interesting history
- beautiful surrounding area with many places to visit for enjoying nature and outdoor activities
- ease of meeting other nomads, lots of social groups and activities, good networking activities for entrepreneurs and freelancers.
- hot, humid weather
- mosquito bites (mine swelled up with an allergic reaction)
- traffic and fumes
- getting around without a scooter
- figuring out how to communicate with drivers who don’t speak English (I really should have learned more words in Thai, like go straight, turn left).
I’m really glad that I came to Chiang Mai for two months. It saved me money, I enjoyed hanging out with fellow nomads, and I loved seeing some of sights of Thailand. The only thing that I would do over when living here again would be to aim for a slightly cooler time of year (probably December/January). I might also try to find a place in the old city, near my favorite coworking space and get a monthly plan for working there.
A few more photos
For more photos, see my albums on Flickr:
- Chiang Mai – week 1
- Chiang Mai – week 2
- Chiang Mai – week 3
- Chiang Mai – week 4
- Chiang Mai – week 5
- Chiang Mai – week 6
- Chiang Mai – week 7
- Wat Chedi Luang
- Clay Studio Coffee in the Garden
- Elephant Nature Park
- Wat Doi Suthep
So if you’re thinking of spending time in Chiang Mai — do it! I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.