Is Chiang Mai really all that special? What’s it actually like?

You've possibly heard of Chiang Mai in Thailand. Digital nomads bang on about it, people seem to love it. But, what's Chiang Mai really like? Here we go…

Buddhist monk on mobile phone

Our Impressions Of Chiang Mai

In January 2019, we spent three weeks in the city of Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand. As it was part of a longer trip to SE Asia, we took our time there, focusing equally on work and a little sightseeing.

For us, it made a convenient place to be based for a few weeks before continuing on to our next destination of Vietnam.

Dave at Dave's Travel Pages - Greece travel blog and bike touring guidesVanessa at Dave's Travel Pages

During our time in Chiang Mai, we walked a lot around the city, and met a few people living there. As a result, we have a pretty solid idea of what Chiang Mai is about – from our perspectives of course!

In this blog post you can see our impressions of Chiang Mai. We've done this in the form of a series of questions, which is a format we might carry over to other destinations.

We've answered the questions independently, so that you can get two opinions for the price of one!

Expectations Of Chiang Mai Before We Went There

Dave: I've been hearing about Chiang Mai for years now. In fact, I seem to remember poking fun at it in a blog post called The most annoying travel catchphrases of 2013- It probably gives you an indication as to how old this travel blog is!

As such, I was expecting an expat type city with a lot of western influence. I must admit having never looked at the map before we left, I did think it might be by the sea though.

Vanessa: I didn’t really have high expectations before we went to Chiang Mai, though I was actually looking forward to staying at one place for a few weeks. I knew that it’s supposed to be a great place for expats and digital nomads. I had seen that there are many yoga studios, and I was quite excited about that. Also, as I really like markets, I was quite interested to see how Chiang Mai’s markets compared to those in Bangkok.

Chiang mai walking street

First Impressions Of Chiang Mai

Dave: Damn, it's not by the sea! Ok, only joking, I'd looked at a map by this time! First impressions were all positive. Easily hopped on the bus from the airport to get to where we were staying. Spotted McDonald's and KFC on the way in, so it looked like I could make myself at home here.

Vanessa: When we landed in Chiang Mai, we were approached by friendly people who were all too eager to let us know about the local bus running from the airport to the town. We already had the information, but it was a pleasant change from other places in SE Asia where everyone wanted to find us a taxi or tuk-tuk.

As the bus drove into the city, I was surprised to see an area that could have very well been in Europe, the modern Nimman area. A little later on, I saw a couple of Buddhist temples – yep, we were in Thailand!

Maya shopping mall in Chiang Mai

What Was It Like To Live In Chiang Mai

Dave: I'm probably one of the few travelers never to have used AirBnB, and so we had booked a place through Booking called Oldy de Garden. The accommodation had everything we needed, such as a kitchen to prepare some of our own meals, big fridge, wifi, and a nice bench to work on. It was basic but suited our needs for what could be classed as a mid-length stay of three weeks.

It was also positioned really well, with a laundry just a hundred metres away, night food market a little further on, coffee shop to work at, and a 10 minute or so walk to the heart of town. The climate when we were there was also ideal. Of course, it was a little warm in the day, but it was nice and comfortable at night. January in Chiang Mai was a lot cooler at night than July in Athens!

Vanessa: I enjoyed living in Chiang Mai for a few weeks. The climate was very pleasant overall, with much less humidity than other places we had visited, like Singapore and Bangkok. We had timed it well though, as January is one of the best months to be in Chiang Mai.

I was super happy to attend some yoga classes, which wasn’t easy while on the road. For a city with such a small centre, there are a surprising number of yoga studios, offering pretty much every type of yoga. I chose to attend a few classes at the Yoga Tree.

In terms of people, I met some expats who had moved there for good, and others who spent a few months every year. I thought it was fairly easy to strike up conversations with random people, although in my experience not many locals speak great English.

The city is entirely walkable, which was a welcome change from some of the other Asian cities. The Old Town doesn’t really feel like a city at all – it’s more like a small provincial town. All in all, it was very pleasant to stroll around and explore the Buddhist temples and the lovely markets.

A temple in Chiang Mai Thailand

What We Thought Of Things To Do In Chiang Mai

Dave: Because I was treating Chiang Mai more as a place to get some work done, I wasn't really on a mission to spend days on full-on sightseeing missions. As such, I tended to be happy visiting a place a day, whether it was a market, temple, or even the mall.

Actually, thinking about it, I probably went to the cinema in the mall more times in those three weeks than I had in the previous year! In short, there were plenty of things to do in Chiang Mai. But I wouldn't exactly say there was one thing you HAVE to do in Chiang Mai or else you had missed out.

Vanessa: For anyone who likes markets, Chiang Mai is really a paradise. I visited many of the markets in Chiang Mai, and thought that they were some of the best markets in SE Asia. I particularly enjoyed the Sunday market, which seemed to be the biggest one, as well as the local Warorot market

In terms of food, Chiang Mai was one of the best places we visited in SE Asia. We had the chance to try many local restaurants and a few ethnic stalls. The food markets were great too. I loved Sri Wattana market where the vendors didn’t speak much English, but there was plenty of choice for take away meals and desserts.

There are also several temples worth exploring, and I thought that the monk chats were very cool. As a woman, I probably couldn’t start a random conversation with a monk, but in Chiang Mai you can do that in many of the temples. It gives you an idea of their lives and the concept of spending some time of your life as a monk.

Fruit for sale at Chiang Mai street market

What Disappointed Us About Chiang Mai

Dave: Did I mention Chiang Mai isn't by the sea?

Vanessa: I would say that the only disappointing thing about Chiang Mai is that it is not on the coast. Even though January is one of the coolest months in Chiang Mai, it was still pretty warm, even by Greek standards – I can’t imagine what the weather is like in April or May!

Food courts in Chiang Mai

Why We Think Chiang Mai Is Popular With Digital Nomads

Dave: I think it's that home away from home feel. Chiang Mai has enough western influence to make people feel comfortable, whilst at the same time having a touch of Thai to make it different. Economically speaking, it's a good place to be based as opposed to northern Europe or the US. There's also plenty of like-minded people there you can hook up with. Whether you're working on self development, want to take a yoga teachers training, or plan to build up your online business, it's not difficult to find others on similar paths if you want to.

Vanessa: I could easily see why Chiang Mai is popular with digital nomads. It’s a laid-back yet vibrant city with pleasant weather and great, inexpensive food options. There are enough things to see and do as a tourist, but few of them stand out, so if you are here to work you can easily focus and not be distracted by excessive sightseeing.

As plenty of expats have decided to call Chiang Mai home, there are several expat-friendly activities and places to go. For someone moving there for a few months, I expect it is fairly easy to meet people and make new friends. Furthermore, finding solutions to basic everyday things such as laundry, buying food, repairing a computer, going to a doctor etc was very easy. Overall it’s an easy and fairly inexpensive city to live in, and it offers the right amount of things to do for people who plan on working from home.

Street food in Chiang Mai Thailand

Would We Go Back To Chiang Mai

Dave: Whilst I wouldn't make it the focus of a future trip, I can see myself going back to Chiang Mai at some point if travelling in the region. Working online as I do means at times you have to do less travelling and more working, and Chiang Mai makes a pretty good base to do that. So, if we ever decide to spend some more time in Asia, it wouldn't surprise me to find myself rocking up again!

Vanessa: Although I feel that I have seen enough of Chiang Mai, I would probably go back as part of another longer trip to SE Asia. One thing I really regret is not having done any cooking classes in Chiang Mai, and it’s something I will definitely do if we go back. 

Dave working in Chiang Mai Thailand

Cost Of Living – More Or Less Than We Thought

Dave: I found the cost of living to be cheap – keep in mind I don't drink or smoke though. I think our biggest expenses were cinema visits and perhaps Vanessa's yoga courses. If you're looking for a place in Asia to get your head down, do some work, and save some cash, Chiang Mai is probably it.

Vanessa: The cost of living in Chiang Mai is pretty low by European standards. As an example, our daily average food budget including restaurants, street food and all supermarket expenses was around 15 euro, for both of us. Our total budget for transportation was about 9-10 euro for all our three weeks in Chiang Mai!

We stayed at a spacious studio apartment with a kitchen called Oldy De Garden, just to the north of the Old Town, and were quite happy with both the apartment and the location. Although we ended up visiting Nimman a few times, I personally preferred the area we stayed. It wasn’t the cheapest accommodation in Chiang Mai, but it came to about 30 euro / night so it was still very affordable. 

Note – my laptop decided to break down when we were in Chiang Mai. It was really easy to find a place to repair it, about five minutes from where we were staying. It turned out that all it needed was a Windows installation, for which I only paid 300 THB (around 10 euro) for same-day delivery. What a relief!

Is Chiang Mai An “Authentic Asia Experience”?

Dave: Not really, but then again, what is? You could describe it more as an Asian / Western fusion kind of place. This is due to the expats who made their homes here years before digital nomads existed, as well as the rapid development that Thailand is undergoing over the last 15 years or so. In all honesty, if you walk around a place where there are as many foreign faces as locals, you're in a holiday resort no matter what you might like to think.

Vanessa: The question “Is this place authentic?” comes up very often in travel forums, and I’ve had many people ask me the same about specific Greek islands, such as Santorini. As this was my first time in Chiang Mai, I couldn’t compare it to what it was like 10 or 30 years ago, and decide whether the influx of expats has changed the city.

In Chiang Mai, we saw quite a few international companies, fast food chains, westernized cafés, sparkling malls and English-speaking shops. On the other hand, we also saw many temples, monks, local markets and tons of street food vendors.

Chiang Mai combines international and local traits, much like every other SE Asia city that we visited in this trip. It probably has a higher percentage of Western expats than some other cities, but the vast majority of people on the streets are still locals, and the majority of markets cater to the local crowds as well.

Would You Recommend Chiang Mai As A Destination On Its Own?

Dave: I think Chiang Mai is a great place for people looking to spend a week or longer. To be honest though, I don't really think it has much use as a place to visit just for a day or two. If you only had three weeks in Thailand, for example, it would make more sense to stick to the islands. In my opinion, Chiang Mai is great for people looking to base themselves for a little while, and get a sense of routine that they may have been missing during their travels in Asia.

Vanessa: I would definitely recommend Chiang Mai as a base for a few weeks, especially for people who have been travelling around Asia for a while and want a break from running from one place to another. At the same time, I would hesitate to suggest Chiang Mai as a destination per se, even though there are plenty of things to do as a tourist. I am not sure anything stood out enough to justify a special visit to Chiang Mai, unless you are travelling around Northern Thailand. But this is up to everyone’s preferences.

Our Impressions Of Chiang Mai

So there you have it, these were our personal impressions of Chiang Mai. Have you been to Chiang Mai? Do you agree with our views? Let us know in the comments!

Is Chiang Mai really all that special?

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