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An Expat's Guide to Living in Chiang Mai

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Onalea Evert
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Chiang Mai, which means “New City” in Thai, is a city in mountainous northern Thailand and home to less than 200,000 people.  When my husband, Michael, and I arrived here in January of 2020, we were blown away at how friendly and helpful the people are. 

A lot of people throughout the past few years have asked us “Why Chiang Mai?

Initially, it was because we read a handful of articles by travel bloggers about how great it was for digital nomads. We’ve stayed for not only that, but the low cost of living, ease of day trips to see elephants or waterfalls, and everything else in between that the city has to offer.

Chiang Mai is good for solo travelers, couples, or group travelers. You will feel safe and welcomed here by the local people and other expats. As you get to know the city it will start to feel like a small town.

With so many digital nomads and expats calling Chiang Mai home, the city has really accommodated us. You will find everything you need to live the lifestyle you want.

With that, let's dive into the details of living in Chiang Mai and see if you should move abroad here, instead of other places in Thailand, like Bangkok or Koh Pha Ngan.

a woman working in her stall selling bags at a Chiang Mai market
Photo of a Chiang Mai market by Maher Meskko

Visa Info for Living in Thailand

We arrived in Thailand with a Thailand Pass and a 30-day tourist visa. The tourist visa was able to extend for another 30 days, from that we went to the Covid Extension Visa for 60 days at a time.

There are several visas to choose from when living in Thailand, each having its own cost and duration. Be prepared: the visa process changes a lot here.

You can hire a professional to walk you through the process, but we have been able to navigate the process on our own. There are so many people who have decided to move here, either as digital nomads who want to stay for a few months, those wanting to teach English and get a work visa, or those interested in retiring to Thailand or simply trying out the expat life for a few years.

When going to immigration to extend your visa (for those that are staying on tourist visas), be sure to arrive early, take a pen, have some extra cash to pay for copies needed, and be prepared to wait.  I found the Thai Embassy site to be a great resource for visas and other things. When dealing with visas, the Thai government is the best source possible for the most up-to-date information.

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How to Get Around Chiang Mai

My favorite way to get around Chiang Mai is Tuk-tuk! On day 1 of being here, we met a Tuk-tuk driver, and befriending him has been the best thing we’ve done. If I’m having a bad day, I get in with him and say let’s go somewhere and soon I’m smiling, laughing, and seeing the city.

The Tuk-tuk drivers know this city, it’s their backyard. They know where all the local markets are, they know of any special events, and they know the best places to eat Thai meals.

Whether you've only decided to visit Chiang Mai or you've moved here, like us, find yourself a Tuk-tuk driver on your first visit and let them show off their home country.

If you would rather go somewhere in a car, Grab is an app you’ll want to download. Grab is like Uber or Lyft. Through Grab, you can order a car or motorbike to pick you up and you can also order food for delivery. Grab is a great app not just for getting around Thailand but also works in most Southeast Asia countries. Taxis are also available for hire.

If you know how to ride a motorbike and are comfortable driving in heavy traffic you can rent or purchase one. There is parking everywhere and is a highly used mode of transportation for the locals. Many expats choose to drive themselves around but do be sure you're comfortable on a motorbike and in Thai traffic before you go for it. It's convenient but can be dangerous.

My favorite mode of transportation in Chiang Mai: Tuk-tuks!

Best Neighborhoods to Live in Chiang Mai

The Central Business District

With the digital nomad aspect of our travels, we like to settle into our neighborhood before exploring more of the city. This makes things easier for the daily grind. Living in the Astra Condos, in the Central Business District, has been a great choice for us.  We have found almost everything we need within walking distance.

Across the street, there are several food stalls to choose from for a quick lunch. One of which, Savoey Noodles, we have declared to have the best khao soi in Chiang Mai! The quick service at these places makes an hour lunch doable, having time to stop and pick up some fresh fruit on the walk home, and even time to get a few household chores done.

We also found The Grumpy Old Men, which is a great spot for a drink after work, the staff has been friendly from the start.

Once we had our daily needs met and settled into our schedule we started exploring more of Chiang Mai.

The Old City

The Old City area is the heart of Chiang Mai. It is home to restaurants, bars, shops, and historic sights. The area is small enough to cover on foot, walking around to get lost and see what you can find such as the Three Kings Monument, North Gate Jazz Co-Op, or Wat Chedi Luang to chat with a Monk. The Old City walls surround the city, making it even easier to explore by foot.

The highlight of the area for me is the Sunday Night Walking Street Market, or simply Sunday Night Market, as it offers so many different things. There are hundreds of stalls on the main road and side roads filled with hand-crafted items, unique gifts, clothing, and tourist trinkets. 

As you walk around the night bazaar, you'll hear local artists, see people enjoying the night, and smell the wonderful local food your nose will no doubt lead you to. There are so many choices of food, be ready to indulge in seafood and meat skewers, papaya salads, noodles, dim sum, mango sticky rice, fresh fruit smoothies, and more!

An Alternative Shopping Option

If you're looking for a place to go shopping for goods that aren't readily available at the local markets, you can head to Central Festival Mall. As one of the newest shopping malls in Chiang Mai, it has a variety of stores from local brands to Western goods. Their food court is also varied with Thai meals and Western restaurants.  

I always suggest supporting locals directly when living abroad but in a bind, this shopping mall is helpful.

a sunset over the city of Chiang Mai seen from an apartment building
A sunset view from our apartment in Astra Condos

Nimmanhaemin 

If you’re looking for a trendier neighborhood outside of the city center, your choice would be Nimmanhaemin, named after Chiang Mai’s oldest family. While in this area you’ll want to check out Nimman Promenade and Nimman 1 for specialty stores.

The night scene in this area ranges from feeling like you are in a living room to heading upstairs to a rooftop bar, you will be able to catch some live music or dance to electronic music. The Maya Market in this area reminds me of being in a big tent at the circus.

This is the most popular destination for digital nomads to live. Whether you're looking to buy or rent a Chiang Mai property or simply want an apartment or house with Western amenities for a few weeks or months, many digital nomads head to Nimmanhaemin. There are also a handful of coworking spaces in this neighborhood, so you can likely meet other digital nomads also working on their own online businesses while they travel.

Going to coworking spaces and striking up conversations with other online workers during their breaks has been one of the best ways to make friends abroad.

Finding Your Home in Chiang Mai

Currently, we are living in Airbnbs but have inquired about renting a place to stay. A foreigner in Thailand can rent a place to stay. The standard contracts are for a year, but you can find shorter stays.

Just like in neighboring countries, serviced apartments are common to find in Chiang Mai. That means that included in your rent, you'll get a cleaner as well. Most likely, they would come on a weekly basis. It's up to you if you'd like to opt for a serviced apartment or not but do note that if the apartment already comes with one, that means the cleaner is already hired and most likely expecting the income.

Using a Real Estate Agent

To find a place to live, you can use an agent. They are typically paid a commission by the landlord and cost you nothing, or you do your own internet search. The perk of using a real estate agent is, on top of it being free to you, is that they know Chiang Mai properties well. They know whats on the market and will be able to take your wishes and match them with available houses or apartments.

Using an agent will undoubtedly save you time and energy.

If it is your first time in Chiang Mai, I would suggest starting with an Airbnb to take time to get to know the city to choose a place to live. Doing things this way, you'll be able to explore the different neighborhoods in Chiang Mai and pick a few places you like the most before signing a contract.

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What to Do in Chiang Mai

The things to do in Chiang Mai are endless! With the city having an abundance of street food, coffee shops, co-working spaces, temples, nightly markets, restaurants, and bars, there truly is something for everyone. 

Almost every night there is a special market where you can find a range of food, artists, and goods. On a hot night, there is nothing better than choosing a restaurant by the river, one of my favorites is Riverview Restaurant where you can enjoy hotpot while enjoying live music and taking in the view. If you are looking for an after-hours club, check out Sound Up or ask around for where to go.

Visiting Elephant Sanctuaries

I will say that your time in Chiang Mai would not be complete without a trip to an elephant sanctuary. We chose to do a half-day trip to one and it was perfect! We were picked up at our condo, driven to the sanctuary, spent time with the elephants, given dinner, and taken back to our condo.

The time we spent with the elephants was magical! We were able to feed the elephants, hang out with them, take a million photos, and give them a bath. We were lucky to visit during Covid because the tourist count is down in Thailand and there was only 1 other person on our tour.

Note From A Way Abroad: Please be conscious of which sanctuary you choose to visit. Animal tourism is a huge problem with so many places in Thailand, and other countries, claiming to be sanctuaries but actually exploiting the animals for profit. Do your due diligence to find a place that has the animals' best interests in mind, not the interests of tourists. If it makes you feel uncomfortable and you're second-guessing if you should visit, take that as a sign that you should not.

Cost of Living in Chiang Mai

Whatever your budget, you’ll be able to enjoy your time here and maybe even be able to save money along the way. 

We spend as a couple around $1,500 USD as our monthly budget, living a good and comfortable life.

Your cost of living will be more if you use Grab and eat at more Western food restaurants or shop at Western stores. On the flip side, if you are trying to live on a shoe-string budget it is easy for a couple to spend under $1,000 USD a month. 

For us, we love Chiang Mai because it can be the cheapest place to live or the most lavish. Based on your lifestyle, you can find a comfortable and affordable life here.

a cute temple in Chiang Mai on a sunny, blue sky day
Be sure to pay a visit to Wiang Kum Kam

Healthcare in Chiang Mai

I am a breast cancer and heart attack survivor! The need for healthcare abroad is a huge concern for me. It almost held me back from living this digital nomad life abroad.

I was only able to bring a 30-day supply of medications with me. Finding a pharmacy was easy, they are all over. It was a little scary going to the first place wondering if I would be able to find everything and if I could communicate with the pharmacist. I had to visit a few different places until I found just what I needed. The pharmacist was so kind and helpful in explaining the intricacies of Thailand medicine. For example, you can only buy a 30-day supply at a time and the doses are lower than in many counties.

The medicine I take to help breast cancer stay in remission was the only medicine I had to see a doctor for to get a prescription. I chose Bangkok Hospital because I read good reviews which stated that English was spoken by most employees.

I went to the hospital and was able to make an appointment with an oncologist for the following Monday. The appointment was a breeze and inexpensive. The doctor was able to prescribe what I needed in a 30-day supply; the medicine though was much more expensive than I expected.

What I Wish I Knew Before Moving to Chiang Mai

I wish I learned:

  • Simple sentences in Thai - English is spoken by many Thai people, but knowing a few basic phrases helps move the conversation forward. Learning Thai isn't the easiest but it's been helpful to our life here. It's also possible to get an Education Visa in Thailand if you'd like to take your studies seriously.
  • How to ride a motorbike – I personally don’t feel the need of having a motorbike to get around in Chiang Mai but I have heard from others that in smaller towns it is nice to be able to.
  • More about healthcare – Such as only being able to buy 30-day increments and to have my medical records organized by illness.

Is Chiang Mai a Good Place to Live?

In general, my husband and I both agree that living in Chiang Mai has been such a great decision for us. From the low cost of living to the literally hundreds of other digital nomads just like us, it's been a comfortable place to call home.

If you're considering moving abroad to Thailand, I'd highly recommend living in Chiang Mai. As bonus points, too, the weather in Chiang Mai gets much cooler than in cities in the southern part of the country. Thanks to the mountains, our cool season is pleasant and a nice break from the SE Asia heat.

With this, I think you're ready to answer the question for yourself, "Is Chiang Mai a good place to live?" If your answer is "yes," don't wait but run to the nearest airport and start living your Thai dreams sooner rather than later.

*Onalea, the author of this article, passed away on May 31 in Thailand with her husband by her side. As Onalea taught us, you never know when your time may be up, so go and explore the world. There are so many wonderful adventures waiting for you. She made the most of her time and spent the last few years traveling to places she always dreamed of seeing. Thank you for sharing a piece of your story with us, Onalea. Rest in Peace*

Header Photo by Tim Durgan. Read our disclaimer & privacy policy here.

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