Digtal nomad guide to living in Chiang Mai

I've been living in Chiang Mai a while now, so thought I would use this post to log my experiences, what I've learned about the area and reflect on the decisions that I've made whilst living here.

I hope it is useful to you and many others when planning your trip or making a decision about coming to Chiang Mai.

TL;DR - come to Chiang Mai.

When to go

The worst time to be in Chiang Mai is the start of March until the end of April. This is when the annual field burning happens and the air quality degrades significantly with the smog.

From November to late February the weather is great - nice liveable temperatures with very little rain. This is also peak time for tourism so maybe harder to find accommodation (or the accommodation prices become slightly inflated).

Past March it begins to get hotter and into the 'summer' time for Chiang Mai, before descending into the rainy season until the end of August.

When it rains:

Chaing Mai Rain

Visas

Information surrounding visas changes spontaneously. Take this section as a guide only and always check with other resources/your embassy before making decisions.

If you're heading from your home country, it is recommended to get a tourist visa with the maximum amount of entries possible (usually 3) if you're planning to stay longterm in Chiang Mai.

The usual process with visas goes something like:

  • Get a multiple entry tourist visa - gives you 60 days
  • Extend tourist visa - costs ~฿1900 (depending on whether you need photos etc..)
  • Leave the country for a visa run, usually to Mae Sai
  • Re-enter Thailand, rinse and repeat above

Updated visa information - 12/12/2015

Thanks for Gregjor on Reddit for pointing out my visa information was old - here is the latest:

The multiple-entry tourist visas are discontinued. The new tourist visas went into effect mid-November.

US/UK/Canada/Western Europe and many other nationalities get 30 day visa exemption on arrival. This can be extended one time for up to 30 days, for a fee, and depending on the immigration officer. See http://www.immigration.go.th/nov2004/doc/services.pdf for specifics on visa exemption.

The new tourist visas come in two flavours: 60 days single entry, can be extended, and 6 months multiple entry, maximum 60 days per entry. The new rules are not published on many of the Thai consulate web sites yet, or the information is sketchy. You must obtain a tourist visa in your home country before entering Thailand. There are some onward travel and money/income/job requirements. Be careful to research visa requirements. It's not clear yet how carefully or evenly the rules will be enforced. Fairly clear information here.

The Thai government has announced that they will be cracking down on visa runners -- people who cross the border and come back the same or next day for another 30+30 day visa exempt stay. They are also supposedly cracking down on overstays.

Extending your visa

This is done at the Chiang Mai immigration office at the Promenada Mall.

It's a bit out of town, but easy enough to get to via motorbike. Once you arrive, there are big signposts that point you in the right direction.

There is also a shop that handles photocopying and photos as it is likely you will need to buy the below.

What you need:

  • 3x4 cm photo - these are not standard passport photos. 4x for ฿200
  • Photocopies of visa in passport with departure card. ฿2 per page

Then queue up, fill in the forms during the queue, pay and wait. The whole process took around 2 hours in total for me. Most people tend to go in the mornings under the assumption that it will be less busy - however the quietest time is usually around 11am or later.

Getting another tourist visa

When your tourist visa runs out, you'll need to get another one.

Popular destinations include:

  • Vientiane, Laos
  • Kuala Lumpar, Malaysia
  • Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Officials have been getting annoyed and may even reject people who spend less than one day out of Thailand to get a new tourist visa. The best approach when getting a new visa is to spend at least a week out.

Getting to Chiang Mai

Ways that I've managed to get the cheapest flight include using a mix of Skyscanner, Google Flights as well as my own research.

I've found it cheapest to book from the UK to BKK and then to book a separate flight to CNX, this saved me ~£100.

Also, trying to avoid DMK to CNX will make your life easier. Flights from BKK to CNX generally aren't the highest ranking on flight search engines as the cost usually a few £ more. But for the sake of an extra £2 versus the stress and expense of going between the two airports, I think it personally makes sense to fly from BKK to CNX.

I flew with Thai Smile airways and it cost £19 - the service was very good and even included food - so I'd certainly recommend taking the lower cost options.

When you arrive

When you arrive you may feel kind of lost. This is normal.

There are usually a few options for getting to Nimman/Old City/Where ever you are staying from the airport. The trip should cost between ฿100 - ฿200.

In the order of preference/cost below:

  1. Sangtaew
  2. Tuk tuk
  3. Normal car taxi

Sangtaews are the big red open backed buses and are the best way to ensure not getting ripped off (or the 'farang price') when travelling in Chiang Mai. The way to approach them is to go up to a window, say (or easier, point to a map) where you want to go and then they will say how much it is. If not, the Thai phrase tao rai also means how much and they will understand this.

Tuk tuks are the next option - sometimes there will be no Sangtaews so you'll have to take one. Usually they'll throw out a high price and usually it can be knocked down. If it seems to high, haggle and be prepared to walk away. And also note, tuk tuks are certainly not the most comfortable ride.

Normal taxi cars are rare and are expensive. It does not make sense to take one unless you have a significant requirement for air conditioning.

Accommodation

Most digital nomads end up living north west of the Old City. Popular areas include:

  • Nimmanhaemin Road
  • Huay Kaew Road
  • The area behind Maya Mall

Apartments vary in prices, with one month rentals typically starting at ฿5000, going all the way up and above ฿20,000.

I'm staying in Chiang Mai Lodge on Huay Kaew Road and pay ฿7000 per month. It is basic, but as a nomad all I require is a basic, clean room with internet. As a bonus, I have a view of Doi Suthep from my balcony.

Chiang Mai Lodge basic room

To get an idea of accommodation in Chiang Mai, check out my app: Nomad Apartment Finder

Finding accommodation

The usual recommendation is to walk around and just chat to people/apartment providers to find the best places at the best prices.

I did this and found it hard work.

There are two key things that you need to do this efficiently:

  • A scooter or some form of transport
  • A basic map/plan/list of accommodation options

Without these, you'll find yourself walking around in circles in the sun without a clue.

Living costs

Living in Chiang Mai is quite affordable - particularly if you try to live like a local. Avoid Western food, don't drink too much alcohol etc. Depending on areas, prices can fluctuate quite a lot, so I've included a basic table below to detail some of those fluctuations.

Price ranges for various goods:

Item Low Price High Price
Regular Americano ฿30 ฿70
Scooter Rental ฿2300 ฿3300
Khao Soi (Noodle Soup) ฿30 ฿70
Large Bottle of Chang in a bar ฿50 ฿85

Phone

There are a few options surrounding phone sim cards. My personal recommendation is to go with one of AIS's data plans.

I currently have a 3gb plan that costs ฿400/month.

The key benefit of this is it comes with free AIS Super Wifi - which you can use at many places (including CAMP) and offers download and upload speeds of over 100mb/s. Also note that the wifi lasts six months after the phone plan has been purchased, so you can keep reusing your codes.

The plan is easy to buy and you'll need your passport to do so. I purchased it from the 3rd floor in Maya - the staff are very helpful and it doesn't take long to do.

Working

Chiang Mai offers an abundance of co-working spaces/coffeeshops. The two key co-working spaces are:

Punspace is a payed for co-working space - it's a great option and has the added benefit of networking.

CAMP is my usual choice - it is free (if you can use the AIS superwifi) and is not far from Nimman, situated in Maya mall.

Working

I've worked from many cafes/co-working spaces in Chiang Mai and have a dedicated blog post detailing the various internet speeds at each, take a look my Chiang Mai internet speeds blog post here.

Food

The food is fantastic.

Depending where you go, prices will vary a bit. The age old theory of 'eat where the locals eat' still remains true, and you'll pay significantly less if you do - in some cases half the price.

Eating where the locals do, meals can be acquired for ~฿30 - ฿40 depending on what you go for. Although, the food can be spicier, the Thai phrase mai pet (no spice) may come in useful.

Make sure to eat at many of the night markets and check out the street food. Some local Thai delicacies include:

  • Boiled blood
  • Fried intestine
  • Ant/bee egg omelette

Strange foods

There is a very popular (and very good) Northern Thai BBQ called Tong Tem Toh or in Thai: ต๋องเต็มโต๊ะ. If you want to head there, make sure you go early as there is pretty much always a queue.

The north of Thailand is also very famous for it's soups, in particular Khao Soi. One of my favourite places to get Khao Soi is from Maesai Khao Soy Kai - great Khao Soi for only ฿35! They also do a great Thai ice tea for ฿10.

If you're looking for western food, it's pretty easy to come by too - especially on Nimman. For good burgers, check out the Beast Burger, or for great Pizza (฿160 for 12" Margarita!) check out Why Not!.

Scooter/bike rental

Having a motorbike in Chiang Mai enables you to properly experience the city and it's surrounding offerings.

Nomads usually renting their bikes from:

Both are good, well known providers. Bikky is slightly more expensive than Mango. And Mango is run by a friendly Irishman. Either of these two providers will do you well.

There have been some cases of people renting bikes with smaller providers having the bikes stolen by the actual shop owners (they follow and find out where you park your bike) then use the spare key to hide the bike and demand money. This is rare. But if you use one of the well known providers then you should be fine.

Riding in Chiang Mai

Let's be honest. It is pretty crazy and there are many accidents.

They key thing is to ride safely, be spatially aware and do the lifesaver looks over your shoulders before making any move on the road.

Do not take unnecessary risks.

Riding here is fantastic, there are many great roads to ride on, but it is not worth risking your life to needlessly overtake a bumbling Sangtaew on a blind bend.

But don't let this put you off :)

Chiang Mai bikes

Fun

There is a lot of fun to be had in Chiang Mai. It is a place that offers a vast array of activities, from great food, to adventure sports and cinemas - it offers something for everyone.

Some of my personal favourites include:

An unused quarry turned swimming/relaxation area - which is only ฿50/day and includes a free herbal drink.

Grand Canyon Chaing Mai

  • Motorcycling and exploring the villages past Doi Suthep

There are many little gems just a motorcycle ride away, past Doi Suthep - head to any of the little villages past for amazing coffee, scenic views and intense riding on the roads.

Riding in Chiang Mai

Coffee

Wellness, life quality and health

The places to workout and look after yourself in Chiang Mai are great. I run most days and there are many publicly available running tracks. I personally run at the CMU running track, as well as the Physical Education University track - all of which are free to enter. The 700 Year Stadium offers a track too (sometimes paid for) as well as other free, public areas to work out and sometimes free classes.

For the gym, I tend to go to Go Gym. If you're looking to lift weights, it has a great selection of equipment and isn't usually too busy. It's not far from Nimman or Maya so is in a central nomad location. It's ฿60 per session which is very reasonable.

There are also many spas, massage rooms etc. around Chiang Mai - although this is not my area of expertise so do not have much to comment on.

Useful resources

Here are some of the links I use to help me discover, research or remember things about Chiang Mai:

A map detailing and reviewing lots of coffeeshops in Chiang Mai. Good to find places to work, or specialist coffees.

Blog about hiking in Chiang Mai, with group events.

A Google Doc made by digital nomads, publicly editable and very useful.

My digital nomad apartment finder app!

A useful map graphically showing points of interest around Chaing Mai

Phil Hudson

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