Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is a popular location for expats, retirees, and digital nomads, who are tempted by the ease of living and the blend of familiar and exotic. It has everything you need from cinemas and shopping malls to international cuisine, but it’s not a bland Westernised city. It has a fascinating culture with hundreds of Buddhist temples, their golden spires shimmering on almost every street in the Old City; captivating Buddhist festivals; and a superlative food scene with abundant inexpensive food stalls and dozens of vegetarian restaurants.
Chiang Mai is more laid back than chaotic Bangkok, it’s compact and easy to get around (although traffic has definitely increased), and you can escape the city to the mountains, waterfalls and lakes that surround it. Apartments are readily available, WiFi is ubiquitous, and the cost of living is low. It’s no wonder that many people end up staying longer than they planned.
We first visited the city for five months in 2011-12 and just finished our second stay of three months.
If you decide to try living in Chiang Mai here are some tips to help you settle in.
Most visitors to Thailand receive a visa free entry of 30 days on arrival at airports and 15 days at land borders (a recent change means the G7 countries now get 30 days at borders). As these can only be renewed for seven days it’s best to get a two month tourist visa before you arrive in Thailand. These are available at Thai consulates in your home country (we got ours in England before our first visit) or in surrounding countries like Laos (which we did on our second visit), Malaysia and Cambodia.
If you get a double entry tourist visa you can stay in Thailand for six months by getting extensions and doing a visa run. Here’s how:
- Get a double entry tourist visa before arriving in Thailand (or do a visa run to Laos when your visa free entry expires).
- At the end of two months extend your visa at the Chiang Mai Immigration office for another 30 days (1900 baht).
- When your 30 day extension expires leave the country to activate the second entry of your visa (for another 60 days). You can cross the border and return instantly. The nearest border crossing is with Myanmar at Mae Sai. The trip can be done in a day by taking one of the visa run minivans that you can book from tour agencies or independently by regular bus (Green Bus) or motorbike (as we did), but this is best spread over at least two days (Chiang Rai is a worthwhile stopping off point) as the motorbike journey can take 6 hours each way.
- When your second entry expires after 60 days you can extend it again at Chiang Mai Immigration for another 30 days.
Technically you can keep getting new tourist visas indefinitely (and many people do) although you could be refused at any time. The most common place to get a new tourist visa from Chiang Mai is Vientiane in Laos. It’s an overnight bus journey each way or we flew near the border to Udon Thani in Thailand with Nok Air (cheaper than flying to Vientiane) and got the bus back.
Here are some useful posts:
- Visa run to Vientiane (to get a new tourist visa)
- Transit guide for a visa run to Vientiane
- Visa extension at Chiang Mai immigration
- Transport options for a visa run to Mae Sai (to activate the second entry of your visa)
- Visa run to Mae Sai by moped
The most popular time to visit is the cool season from November to February. It’s usually dry and sunny with temperatures up to 30 C in the afternoon. Mornings and nights in December and January, especially around the end of the year, can get pretty cold (10-15 C), especially on the back of a motorbike, so bringing some warmer clothes is a good idea.
The hot season is from March to June, and from mid February to March the city can become very smoky and polluted as farmers in the surrounding area burn their fields. This is probably the worst time to be in the city and many expats try to head down to the islands or abroad.
The rainy season is from July to October. The end of October can be a great time of year as everything is green, the sky is clear, and there are less tourists. It’s also a good time to arrive to find an apartment before the high season starts.
The centre of Chiang Mai is the Old City which is surrounded by a square moat and sections of the old city walls. There are many temples and narrow leafy streets, and limited development. Most tourists stay here but affordable long term apartments and houses are limited.
Suthep Rd and Huay Kaew Rd lead from the western side of the moat towards Doi Suthep mountain passing Nimmanhaemin Rd, the hippest area of the city popular with Thai students from the nearby Chiang Mai University and with lots of cafes, restaurants and boutiques.
We highly recommend buying the Nancy Chandler Chiang Mai Map when you arrive. It’s a beautiful illustrated map with recommendations for restaurants, shops, and local tips.
Chiang Mai is a compact city and is easy to get around. Traffic is increasing though and the quickest way to get around is on a scooter. We rented an automatic scooter for 2500 baht a month—there are many rental places in the Old City. You don’t need to show a driving licence but it’s a good idea to have some motorbike experience before driving in Chiang Mai as accidents do happen.
Renting bicycles is also popular with those who don’t want to drive a scooter, and you can walk to many places.
Taxis are only really available at the airport, a 10 minute drive from the Old City (120 baht fixed fee into town). Around town you can hire three wheeled tuk tuks or more common are the red trucks songthaews which are the only public transport option. You can flag down a songthaew, tell the driver your destination, and if it’s going there you can hop on with the other passengers for a fare of from 20 baht. You can also hire the whole songthaew if it’s empty.
Current (February 2014) exchange rates for the Thai baht: $1 = 33 baht, £1 = 53 baht, €1 = 44 baht.
We access our money with ATM machines but unfortunately most Thai banks charge a fee of 150 baht for international cards (in addition to any fees your bank at home may charge). AEON is the only bank we’ve found that doesn’t charge a fee [Update: we have heard but not confirmed ourselves that they now charge] but they can be tricky to find. You can find AEON ATMs in the Electronics Plaza building (1st floor) on Chang Lor Rd just outside the moat; in the Central Airport Plaza mall (3rd floor); and in the Central Festival mall (3rd floor near the ice skating rink).
The cost of living in Chiang Mai really depends how long you stay and your style of living. Many budget solo travellers staying for a few months live off $500 a month. We choose nicer apartments and as vegetarians don’t eat at the cheap street stalls often so we spent $675 per person a month on our first stay and a bit more the second time. Renting for a year is much cheaper and the couple from 8 Miles From Home spend just $372 per person a month.
As always we keep track of our travel expenses using our iPhone app Trail Wallet.
One of the reasons Chiang Mai is so popular with digital nomads wanting a break from their travels for a few months is the number of apartments available.
If you are only staying for a month or so then the easiest option is to negotiate a monthly rate with a guesthouse or choose a serviced apartment. Many of these are glorified hotel rooms with just one room and no kitchen except for a fridge and perhaps a microwave. They usually have WiFi and air conditioning though and many people, especially solo travellers, are happy with them as they are very affordable from around 5000 baht per month.
If you want a nicer apartment with at least one separate bedroom and a kitchen, and perhaps a pool and gym, you usually need to rent for at least three months and you’ll have to pay a lot more, perhaps 15,000-20,000+ baht a month. Prices go down if you commit to a longer stay.
If you are staying for at least 6-12 months then prices are a lot more affordable and you have the option of renting a house. The 8 Miles from Home guys pay just 7500 baht a month for a three bedroom house although it is further out of the city.
Electricity, water and sometimes internet are usually not included in the rent.
If you want anything more than a simple studio apartment without kitchen then it’s easiest to get an agent to help you find somewhere. Options include Sathioga, Chiang Mai Properties, Perfect Homes, Open Realty, Chiang Mai House, and Roberta Thitathan, an independent agent who found our latest house for us (email: email@example.com).
We often get asked about the best neighbourhoods to live. We like living near (but not on) Nimmanhaemin Rd but the city is small enough that the area isn’t too much of an issue. It’s best to stay in a hotel for a few days while you look for places and see which area you like.
Phone and Data Plans
If you have an unlocked phone it’s really easy to pick up a prepaid Thai SIM card from one of the ubiquitous 7-Eleven stores. When we arrived at Chiang Mai airport Truemove H were giving out free SIMs so it was even easier and came with instructions on how to activate it. We bought credit at the 7-Eleven and then chose one of Truemove’s data plans—the Monthly Net 349 package gave us 1GB of data for 349 baht and we activated it by dialling *900*43#. The 3G speeds vary but are generally good and tethering is allowed.
Happy with DTAC is the other main option.
The food in Chiang Mai is wonderful. There are inexpensive street food stalls everywhere—the evening market at Chiang Mai Gate is particularly popular.
Chiang Mai is vegetarian heaven with around 50 vegetarian restaurants and many more vegetarian friendly places. See our recently updated guide to Chiang Mai vegetarian restaurants for our favourites.
If you need a break from Thai you’ll find Japanese, Italian, Mexican, Burmese, Chinese and many more international cuisines. We’ve shared our top spots for vegetarian friendly international eats.
Thais love their coffee and there are an overwhelming number of cafes serving excellent coffee.
We found the tap water safe enough to use to clean our teeth and wash vegetables but most people don’t drink it. To save money and plastic use the water filtration machines that are found on streets all over the city. You can take bottles to fill up for just 1 baht for 1.5 litres.
For gifts, crafts and textiles as well as food stalls there are two popular walking street markets. The Saturday night market is on Wualai Road near Chiang Mai Gate and the Sunday night market is on Ratchdamnoen Rd near Tha Phae Gate. If you want to avoid the crowds get there around 5pm. There is also a Night Bazaar on Chang Klan Rd every night but the quality of the products isn’t as good.
For household goods like bedding and kitchen equipment we went to the Big C and Tesco Lotus supermarkets. You could also try local markets like Wararot but these will be a bit harder to navigate.
Note that flat top sheets are difficult to find. Most Thais seem to sleep under light patterned duvets without a cover. We bought a pack in the Big C that included a duvet, fitted bottom sheet, and pillow cases.
The cheapest place to buy fruit, vegetables, noodles, tofu, rice etc is in one of the many local markets. Use the Nancy Chandler map to find one closest to you. We did the bulk of our food shopping there but for western treats like cheese and bread the best supermarkets are Rimping (which also has organic vegetables), Tops, and Central Food Hall in the Central Festival mall which bizarrely stocks Waitrose (an upmarket British supermarket) products including extra mature cheddar. So expensive but so good.
Pantip Plaza on Chang Klan Rd is a good place for cheap electronics and accessories.
The Thai national anthem is played in public places at 8am and 6pm every day and you are expected to stop what you are doing and listen in silence. This is particularly noticeable at the Saturday and Sunday walking street markets where the crowded street comes to a standstill.
A different song, The King’s Anthem is also played before every film at the cinema along with photos of the King—make sure you stand up for it.
We love going to the cinema in Thailand—it’s inexpensive and the theatres are very comfortable.
Wednesdays are Movie Day at all of the cinemas below with normal seats costing 100 baht. On Mondays and Tuesdays tickets cost from 130-150 baht and on weekends from 150-180 baht. You pay a little more for the premium seats at the back and there are sometimes sofas for couples at the very back.
These are the cinemas we’ve been to:
- SFX in Maya mall – This is new and has a convenient location at the corner of Nimmanhaemin and Suthep Rd. It’s slightly cheaper than the cinemas below.
- Major Cineplex at Central Festival mall – This is also fairly new and has an IMAX cinema and a 4DX cinema where your seat moves and you are sprayed with water/air in line with the action. Simon loved the 4DX but I hated it (it made me feel sick) and it costs a pricey 400 baht a ticket.
- Major Cineplex at Airport Central Plaza mall
For independent and documentary films Documentary Arts Asia has screenings on Mondays and Thursdays with entrance by donation [Update: now 40 baht].
Health & Insurance
Healthcare in Chiang Mai is good and we know a number of people who’ve had operations at the hospitals.
We go to Dr Morgan at the Health Care Medical Clinic. She was trained in the US, speaks excellent English, and prices are reasonable.
You don’t need a prescription in Thailand for many medications like antibiotics or contraceptive pills. There are plenty of pharmacies in the city, even the British brand Boots.
As we only stay in Chiang Mai for a few months at a time we use our usual travel insurance. The best we’ve found for long term travel is True Traveller (UK/EU citizens) and World Nomads (worldwide); unlike many policies both these companies allow you to purchase policies when you are already travelling and you don’t need a return ticket. Read more about how to buy travel insurance.
If you’ll be staying in Chiang Mai long term you’ll probably want to look into expat health insurance for Thailand.
Events and Festivals
There are many festivals in Chiang Mai. A favourite of many is the mass lantern release that takes place during the Yi Peng festival in November. Around this time there are other Yi Peng and Loy Krathong activities including parades and the release of banana leaf boats onto the river.
Thai New Year or Songkran is celebrated with a multi-day mass water fight in mid April.
You can see a list of festivals here.
You can get by with English but it’s helpful to learn at least some basic phrases and numbers. I did the online Mango Languages Thai course and found it really helpful. I like the format of the course which covers useful phrases straight away and uses repetition in the quizzes to help vocab stick in your memory; the cultural and grammar notes; and the way it breaks down exactly what a phrase means so you can construct your own sentences. There’s a free trial to see if you like it.
If you are more serious about learning Thai you could attend a language school. Many schools offer one year education visas if you sign up for a course.
We choose to work at home but many digital nomads work in the hundreds of cafes all over the city.
CAMP (Creative and Meeting Place) has just opened up in the Maya mall and looks like an interesting free option.
I’ve written a guide to running while travelling which has lots of tips to get you started including how to avoid the heat and traffic of SE Asia (get up early!). Chiang Mai isn’t a wonderful place to run but it’s doable. Here are my main running routes:
- Moat – Running around the moat can be quite pleasant early in the morning before there’s too much traffic. It’s about 7km around the square route, you can’t get lost, and the pavement is in good condition and mostly free from obstacles. You can add some extra distance by doing the 500m laps around the small park in the SW corner.
- Chiang Mai University Campus – The pavements are in decent condition, it’s quiet early in the morning, and there’s a small lake.
- Chiang Mai University Meeting Hall Park and Nimman sois – You can do 1km laps around the park on Nimmanhaemin Rd and extend it by running up and down the quiet sois off Nimman.
- Wat Umong and around – The roads near this Wat are relatively quiet.
- Trail run to Wat Pha Lat – If you don’t mind running uphill this is a lovely escape from the roads. The start of the trail is about 3km from Nimman along Suthep Rd and it takes you through the forest part the way up Doi Suthep. Don’t enter the Wat wearing skimpy running clothes. If you are hardcore you could run all the way up Doi Suthep.
- Huay Tueng Tao Lake – The 4km circuit around this lake just off Canal Rd is the most pleasant place to run but it involves a 15 minute drive out of Chiang Mai.
Gyms, Swimming, Yoga
Here’s a list of gyms in Chiang Mai.
Here’s a list of swimming pools in the city and many hotels charge a day-use fee to use their pool. We joined the pricey Kantary Hills hotel’s fitness club as it was nearest to our house and the pool is lovely.
There are many hairdressers where you can get a hair cut for a few dollars but most don’t speak English. We decided to go to New York New York hair studio based on the Tieland to Thailand review and were happy with the results. Vera has worked in New York and speaks perfect English so you get a proper consultation.
Escaping the City
Sometimes the traffic gets too much and you need an escape from the city.
Quiet places inside or close to the city include the grounds of Wat Umong, the trail to Wat Pha Lat or all the way up Doi Suthep, and Huay Tueng Tao lake.
It’s easy to get into the countryside from Chiang Mai. You could do the half day Samoeng Loop motorbike trip into the mountains past waterfalls, botanical gardens, and rural scenes; or take a few days away to Chiang Dao (our favourite getaway) or Pai.
Things to Do
As this is a guide to living in Chiang Mai rather than visiting as a tourist I won’t go into too much detail on the activities on offer. We do recommend exploring the many Wats, taking a trip up to Wat Phra That on Doi Suthep, doing a cooking class, and visiting the Elephant Nature Park. For more great suggestions see this article on 50 Free Things to Do in Chiang Mai.
The I Love Chiang Mai Facebook group has the answers to many questions related to living in the city and a list of apartments.
Are you planning a trip in 2017? See our Gear and Resources page for our favourite tools to help you plan the perfect trip.
Enter your email to sign up for our monthly newsletter and free ebook South America Highlights.