Chiang Mai is a buzzing, filled with tourists city. It’s also a place, where a lot of foreigners choose to stay for longer. Expats and digital nomads flock to Chiang Mai every single year to work, travel and relax. Despite tourism, it’s a great spot to live. Wondering how to move to Chiang Mai? Read on to find out more!
Life in Chiang Mai is easy, easier than what you might imagine. There are condos to rent everywhere in the city, there are pubs and clubs, there are interest groups for digital nomads, entrepreneurs, volunteers, and travellers, there are supermarkets with western food, gyms, hospitals with English speaking doctors, and if you have kids you can send them to one of the international schools. If you want, you can have your piece of the west here, or you can easily immerse yourself in the culture.
If this sound like a place for you, here is a guide that will help you with your move to Chiang Mai.
Why is Chiang Mai so attractive?
Chiang Mai has been popular among digital nomads and expats for a long time now. It’s mostly due to its low cost of living, laid back lifestyle and a mix of western and Thai cultures.
Chiang Mai is still affordable, although the influx of foreigners and Chinese investors are slowly changing that. It is easy to see that the city in 10-20 years will be much bigger and much more expensive. However, for the time being, it is a great place to live.
The north of the country is a bit different from the rest. After a year of living there I went to Bangkok and was shocked how rude and ignorant the locals were comparing to those living in Chiang Mai.
People in the north are gentler, calmer and much more laid back and this affects everyone who lives there, too.
Chiang Mai also offers the best of both of the worlds. You can totally immerse yourself in the culture, live among the Thais, in a small side street and not see tourists for a very long time. You can also go to shopping malls, sip skinny latte in a modern cafe and go to the cinema every single weekend.
The city is very close to nature. In a matter of minutes you can find yourself by a waterfall, or in the mountains. Day trips are easy and make your life even more relaxed.
Before you come
Before you pack your bags and decide to change your life completely, prepare yourself and find out whether you can really settle down in Chiang Mai.
Climate and pollution
Chiang Mai has the best climate in Thailand. Thais love to come here for holidays in December and January because then the temperatures fall to 10 degrees at night and 25 during the day.
Most of the year the weather is great, except March – May when the air is so polluted you don’t see the sun for days! This is one of the worst aspects of living there. If you have respiratory problems, you should think of moving from Chiang Mai during those months.
Hot season is so called burning season in Chiang Mai, when the farmers burn the leftovers after crops. They do it on a massive scale. This not only affects the air quality, but also raises the temperatures even more. The heat is unbearable at that time, reaching 50 degrees Celsius sometimes.
As I said before, it’s best to move somewhere else for that time.
Cost of living
Prepare yourself financially. Thailand is cheap, but it also depends what kind of lifestyle you want to have. You can totally live on street food, but if you fancy a pizza, or something western once in a while, you will pay more.
How do you like spending your free time? Going out, weekends away and hobbies, like rock climbing, or going to the gym, will cost you extra. Budget first and remember that in Thailand you can live on $500 per month, but you can also spend as much as you would in a big European city.
Find out more about cost of living in Thailand.
One of the most important things you should think of before you come here. This is also the most frustrating part of preparing for the move. The visa regulations change all the time, and they change suddenly, without any warning, so keep your eyes and ears open when you apply for your permission to stay in Thailand.
Many expats stay here on the tourist visa, which is easy to get, but it means that you need to extend it every few months and once you do that a couple of times, you must leave the country and wait a couple of months before you try to get in again. The visa regulations are very strict at the moment and getting a tourist visa for a longer stay is not a good idea.
If you are intending to work in Chiang Mai as an English teacher then your employer should help you to apply for the non-immigrant visa B. That gives you a permission to stay for a whole year.
It is possible to work in a different industry other than teaching, but finding such work is very difficult.
There are all kinds of other visas, like retirement visa, permanent residence and visa on arrival. You can read my post about long-term visas to Thailand here. Check with the Thai embassy in your country for details, and remember – do not overstay your visa, as it always equals a fine, or deportation.
The best solution is to contact your local Thai consulate and ask for more information there. Law changes all the time and it’s best to ask at the source.
In Chiang Mai, the immigration office is located near the airport.
It’s open from 7:30 until 4:30 Monday to Friday, except national holidays. The staff speaks English, but be prepared for a very long wait.
Before you leave your country, buy a good insurance. As you will live in Chiang Mai longer, it’s best to buy an expat health insurance. This way you will be able to go to a doctor without any cost, even if it’s just a routine visit.
Your move is not over yet, even if you are in Chiang Mai already. You have a few things ahead of you before you are fully settled.
Chiang Mai is really cheap to live. At the moment I rent a small studio in a nice, new apartment building, in the north of town. It is a room with a bathroom and a balcony. The monthly rent is 4,000 Baht, plus utilities – electricity depends on how much I use the air con, water is 200 Baht a month. During the winter the total amount is 4,500 Baht, during the dry season it is from 5,500 to 6,000 Baht.
You can find slightly cheaper accommodation, or go a little bit out of town and even rent a house. There are also 2-3 bedroom condos, with kitchens and big bathrooms, which are usually available from 10,000 Baht a month. Read more on how to find an apartment in Chiang Mai.
I bought an almost new scooter – automatic Honda Click. It cost 27,000 Baht, but you can get an older, and cheaper bike for around 16,000-20,000 Baht or you can rent one for 150-200 Baht a day. The gas is very cheap and it costs me 100 Baht a week. Read more on how to rent, buy and sell a scooter in Thailand.
If you don’t fancy riding a scooter, you will have to hail a songthaew or tuk-tuk. Songthaews are big, red cars, and they are a little bit like buses that will take you everywhere. Here is a useful advice: a short journey by songthaew should not be more than 30 Baht. Stop the car and tell the driver where you want to go, if he agrees do not ask about the price, just get on. If he tells you a price, and you think it is too high, wait for another car.
Tuk-tuks are a little bit more expensive and the drivers usually charge around 100 Baht for a trip.
Food and drinks
Food is one of the cheapest things here. You can get a decent meal for only 20 Baht. As it is Thai food, it is always delicious and there are plenty of choices everywhere. You can buy rice with vegetables and meat, or just a quick snack. You won’t go hungry here.
Another thing the city is quite popular for is the many coffee shops in Chiang Mai. Quite a lot of them are hubs for expats, where they spend their days working on their laptops. The cafes have internet and spaces to work on. Coffee is usually around 50-60 Baht.
Going out is the most expensive part, in my opinion. A beer in a bar costs 70 Baht, a cocktail anything from 120 Baht. Thai beers and whiskeys are not the best and you might get sick of them really quickly. If you want to buy an imported beer, like Guinness, that will cost you around 200 Baht. Check out my post about nightlife in Chiang Mai.
If you want to do some shopping, then there is no better place than Chiang Mai. The city is full of shops and shopping centres and you will find everything here, no matter what your budget is.
Spending your free time
If you have enough time to travel around Asia, then you will have plenty of options to do so. The Chiang Mai International Airport has flights to Laos, Cambodia, Burma, China, Hong Kong, Singapore. You can also fly to any of the islands in the south of the country.
If you are after a cheaper option to travel, then you will easily find buses here that go to Burma, Laos and Cambodia.
The north of Thailand is worth exploring. If you drive a motorbike then you can do the Mae Hong Son loop, and explore other places on your two wheels. Trains and buses are also widely available and you can catch one easily to your chosen destination.