As it has become more and more popular to live the Digital Nomad lifestyle, Chiang Mai has emerged as what’s likely the most popular destination. I went there for a couple of months and here are my notes.
The advantages of being a digital nomad in Chiang Mai
- It’s cheap
- Housing is easy
- Getting a local SIM is convenient and inexpensive
- There’s a great community of nomads
- The weather and air are nice (except during burning season)
- It’s a generally high trust society
The cost of living is very low in Chiang Mai
You can rent a nice 1 bedroom apartment for about $300 per month or maybe $500 per month if you want to be right in the heart of the city and have maid service.
Food is very cheap as well. If you eat local food, $1-$3 per meal out is totally doable. Western foods cost closer to what they would in the US, with a typical sit-down dinner being around $10. Of course, there’s really no limit on the higher end and you can certainly find much more expensive places that few locals could afford if you try.
Coffee or tea at a local cafe is around $1.50 and it’s about double that at a western place. Alcohol runs a bit closer to US costs for beer and perhaps even more than that for wines and spirits.
Coworking spaces are a bit pricier for what they provide. Around $100 to $150 USD per month is the norm, much as it would be in Japan, but with far slower internet and worse facilities.
Housing is easy
I was actually shocked when I realized just how easy it is to rent an apartment in Chiang Mai, even if you don’t speak Thai. You can just walk into most apartment buildings and ask if they have any spare rooms. If they do, you can very often move in the next day and rent on a month to month basis.
Sim cards and mobile cell service
You can get a local sim card with a data plan at any 7-11 (and there are a decent number of them). All you need to do is let them copy your passport and pay $10-$30 USD depending on your plan and you’re good to go for a month. Renewing is just a matter of going to any 7-11, showing your phone, saying the name of your provider and saying, “top up, 500 baht krahp” if you’re a man or “top up, 500 baht ka” if you’re a woman. After you top up, dial the number you got from your service provider to buy the plan you want in the month going forward.
Scooters (aka Motorbikes)
Amazingly, with little to no knowledge of the local language, you can rent a scooter soon after arrival. I used Mango Bikes. It was a great experience, and it cost under $100 USD per month for a fully automatic 125 CC bike.
There’s a great community of nomads
A big thanks has to go out to Johnny for this one. He organized a rapidly growing “Nomad Coffee Club” group, and the Travel Like a Boss Podcast, both of which are dedicated to sharing how to make a living abroad as a DN. Just in the time when I was in Chiang Mai, I attended coffee club meet-ups where successful entrepreneurs shared how they had built businesses around ebooks, courses, affiliate marketing, blogging, Amazon FBA and other strategies.
The older of the two Punspace coworking spaces at Nimman is full of enterprising hustlers building their businesses on Amazon and elsewhere. It was a bit noisy for my tastes but I went there anyway because the people were awesome.
Chiang Mai is warm but not so hot as much of the rest of Thailand and it’s not too humid either. I was there during rainy season, but it was nothing compared to Taiwan, Hong Kong or other humid places I’ve lived.
The high trust society
One of the more frustrating things about living in poorer countries is that foreigners are automatically wealthy by local standards. Aside from the social awkwardness that can cause, it also means that simply being western makes one an idea target for pushy merchants, scam artists, pickpockets and violent muggers.
The great thing about Thailand is that there are far fewer scam artists, pickpockets or violent muggers than one would find in most places with a similar level of economic development. I don’t know if it’s due to the state sponsored buddhism or something else, but it’s a great feeling to be able to navigate with a cell phone out in public with little fear of someone running by and stealing it (as I’ve seen happen in Vietnam) or having a money changer do a fast count and steal a bill (as happened to me once in southern China). People are poor but for the most part, very honest.
The great thing about Chiang Mai in particular is that even the pushier merchants and tuktuk drivers that are all over Bangkok don’t seem to have discovered the opportunity presented by the burgeoning DM community yet. I hope they never do.
The disadvantages of being a digital nomad in Chiangmai
- Visas are a pain
- The internet kind of sucks
- Drinking unfriendly
- Chinese tourists
Visas in Thailand
For a country that wants to promote tourism, visas are a serious hassle in Thailand. You can get 30 days upon arrival if you’re from the US (or most wealthier countries), or you can buy a tourist visa and get multiple entries of 60 days each. While in the country a stay may be extended once by 30 days but requires going to an immigration office and takes about half a day.
There is a new tourist visa that has been announced that will be good for an unlimited number of entries over 6 months. It still has limited stays of 60 days each time.
For those on longer term visas, such as students, investors, larger entrepreneurs, those with Thai spouses or retirees, there is still a requirement to “check in” every three months. And to the best of my knowledge there is no permanent residency system. I met foreigners who had been in Thailand for a decade, going all the way back to high school in one case and they still had to either leave the country or do a check in every three months.
The internet kind of sucks
This was my one huge surprise in Chiang Mai. A lot of other people had praised the internet, but I actually found it even worse than in the US. I moved out of my first apartment due to a very poor internet connection (shared with half the floor), and then encountered a similar but slightly less severe situation at my next apartment. On one occasion, I tried 17 times to upload a YouTube video, failing every time, tried using my phone’s 3g only to find the connection spotty and then had to give up and wait until I was at my favorite coworking space. (╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻
I tested fourteen different coffee houses and found their internet was universally horrible. Starbucks didn’t even offer wifi!
If you’re just blogging or doing that kind of thing in CM, you’ll be fine. If you like to watch video or skype friends as I do, it’s a pretty rough situation. The biggest problem for a shorter-term resident is that most apartments won’t let you upgrade to a fiber service, even if you pay for it. My advice is to not sign a lease until you actually do an internet speed test from your new room.
The not so great firewall
There’s also an internet firewall in Thailand. But it’s very non-obtrusive. As far as I can tell, it only blocks religiously sensitive material, and The Daily Mail. I actually think the Daily Mail is a horrible site, so I don’t mind. I enjoy Facebook, Youtube and many, many other sites though, so hopefully they never make a firewall like China’s.
Not drinking friendly
Depending on your disposition, this could be a positive or a negative. Thailand heavily taxes liquor and as a result, it’s far more expensive than in nearby countries of similar development, such as China. More annoying to me was the hours. One time, I went to 7-11 to pick up food for a barbecue at a friend’s place. I also grabbed a four pack of beer and was refused sale. Why? Because it was 4:15pm and in Thailand it’s illegal to sell beer at 4:15pm. It can only be sold at lunch time or between 5pm and midnight. Ditto for restaurants and bars. I never minded the 2am cutoff in the places where I lived in the US, though I did enjoy some of the late night clubs in Taiwan when I was in my 20s. But Thailand is a bit too extreme on this one for my tastes!
Chiang Mai is crawling with Chinese tourists and it’s horrible
Just kidding… it’s wonderful! My view on this one differs sharply from most the Thai locals I spoke with. For a variety of reasons, even while the flood of tourism from China is great for business a shocking number of people complained about them to me.
I loved meeting all the Chinese tourists. I didn’t see any of the stereotypical behavior that gets complained about so much (with one exception) and I made a bunch of new friends on WeChat. This difference in views could be related to my sharing a common language with them, but I still met a lot of really cool travelers.
Actually, I met some Japanese people in Chiang Mai, too. If you’ve already studied a bunch of other Asian languages, CM can be a lot of fun in that sense. My friend there who was learning Russian even got some chances to practice that. It made me wish Moses McCormick were there so we could level up at the mall. 😀
Chiang Mai as a good place to be a digital nomad, but not excellent. It doesn’t quite live up to its online hype.
Chiang Mai is a fantastic place to start one’s journey as a digital nomad. Its low cost of living and network of people building online businesses make it an ideal launching point as of late 2015. The visa situation and paucity of places with good internet connections are serious problems, though.
Other places to consider would be Kansas city if you’re a US permanent resident or southern Taiwan if you want better internet and don’t need the network as much or Saigon (Ho Chi Minh city) if you want the internet, don’t mind the crazy and still want a network of nomads. San Francisco is also an excellent choice if you’re already making money and want to learn how to take it to the next level.