By Chris Biggs
Lori and I are not the first travelers to discover beautiful Chiang Mai, Thailand. Not by a long shot. There’s a well-worn trail of free spirits and adventurers who’ve come before us, transforming the city from a sleepy spot to a bustling (but still very manageable) tourist destination.
During our stay in Thailand last month, we had the opportunity to spend six nights in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second-largest city and must-see attraction of the country’s northwest (near the borders of both Laos and Myanmar).
Do six nights make us experts on a city that bloggers have been writing about for dozens of years? Absolutely not. That said, it’s very clear after spending a few days in Chiang Mai why not only so many tourists choose to visit, but why the digital nomad community there is so large.
A digital nomad is a fashionable way of describing someone who lives and works where they choose, often telecommuting and working on their own schedule - and frequently while traveling the globe.
***So that guy with huge Beats headphones writing code on his laptop next to you in a coffee shop in Bangkok? Probably a digital nomad.***
***That woman putting together a PowerPoint presentation in a co-working space in Amsterdam? Amster-damn, she’s probably a digital nomad.***
***And that older gentleman staring at you intensely while you’re buying detergent at the grocery store in Buenos Aires? Nope, he’s just a pervert. Move away quickly.***
Part of the decision Lori and I made when we quit our traditional 9-to-5 (or, more usually, 8-to-7) jobs was to regain control over the things that made us happy, like where we live, or how often we travel, or even little things like whether we have time to read a book - or go for a run - when we feel the urge.
So while we’re traveling full-time (and not working) throughout 2017, we’re starting to look at opportunities to become digital nomads ourselves and re-enter the workforce in 2018 - while maintaining this travel-centric lifestyle.
That’s a big reason why Chiang Mai stood out to us - it’s the kind of place with all of the elements needed to function as a great “home base” for anyone working remotely. Some highlights include:
1) Cheap rent = more money in your pocket
Living options abound in Chiang Mai, and for those accustomed to costs in the U.S. or Europe, you’ll be blown away by how inexpensive you can find accommodations in the city. According to NomadList, our favorite source for data on nomadic life in cities around the world, a 1-bedroom apartment in the city center retails for about $286/month. That’s not a typo.
If you’re only staying in Chiang Mai for a relatively short period of time, however, you might have to pay a slightly higher cost for a short-term rental - or opt instead to live in a hotel for the duration of your stay (which can range from $10/night to $25/night for nice budget accommodations, albeit likely without a kitchen).
I wouldn’t recommend staying in an AirBNB location, simply because the price point - both in Chiang Mai and generally around the world - is much higher on AirBNB than for other budget options. In Chiang Mai, for example, staying in an AirBNB for a month in an average 1-bedroom apartment could cost you over $900/month.
Regardless, a month or two working remotely in Chiang Mai will pale in comparison to your rent in Manhattan, Miami...or even Boise.
2) Lots to do on the weekends
One of the major benefits of living in Chiang Mai isn’t the city itself (although we really do like the city!), but is more about the city’s access to great outdoor activities - most within an inexpensive one hour drive of Chiang Mai proper.
Three highlights include:
Elephants: Ever seen a photo of your friends playing with elephants been struck with pure jealousy? If you lived in Chiang Mai, you could cuddle up to baby elephants every weekend. Elephant Jungle Sanctuary and other reputable operations provide a safe, cruelty-free environment for elephants to live - and interact with visitors, who will get to feed and bathe them. $48 for a half-day visit will get you a ride from Chiang Mai (about one hour) plus lunch and a lifetime of memories. Also, if you’re thinking about riding an elephant, please read this and promise me you’ll never, ever do that.
Hiking: Like a good outdoor workout? Head to Doi Inthanan National Park, about 75 minutes by car from downtown Chiang Mai, for a chance to hike trails and catch awesome views. The highlight is the twin pagodas erected for Thailand’s former king and queen near the park’s highest elevation - a great spot for photos. Expect to pay about $40/person for a tour package, which includes all transportation, lunch, park entry fees, water, and a guide (we used Wonderful Eco Tours, who I would highly recommend). Conversely, you can rent a car (or hire a driver independently) and put together your own itinerary for Doi Inthanan, although it will take extra effort and, in my opinion, isn’t worth it unless you want to do extensive hiking outside of a tour group environment.
Waterfalls: “Don’t go chasing waterfalls…” goes the refrain from that all-time-classic TLC song. But in this case, chase away. Just an hour north of the city are the Bua Thong Waterfalls, which get their name for the mineral deposit that leaves the rocks feeling nearly adhesive - and makes climbing up them fairly easy. Bring your camera (in a waterproof bag!) plus a change of clothes. No entrance fee required to access the falls.
3) Eat like royalty
Pad thai. Tom yum soup. Pad see ew. Mango sticky rice. Massaman curry.
The list goes on (and on, and on…), and there are very few Thai dishes I don’t absolutely love - although there are certainly a few too spicy for my mild tastebuds.
Chiang Mai is home to hundreds of restaurants, and it can be hard to filter your way through to find a winner. We really liked It’s Good Kitchen near Phra Singh Temple - perfect for a quick and inexpensive meal - and Dada Cafe for a more substantial vegetarian dinner.
Also check out Chiang Mai’s HUGE (pronounced “yuge” if you’re a certain orange-colored politician) Sunday Night Market, which takes over the main road in the old city every Sunday starting around 4:00 pm. Besides foot massages ($2 for 30 minutes!), clothes, and other goods for sale, there are well over 100 street food vendors cooking up all the classics at low prices.
Lastly, if you’re interested in learning how to make Thai food, cooking classes abound throughout the city. Ours class was with the wonderful Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School, located inside the old city. For $22 per person, we were treated to five hours of culinary education that included a local market tour plus hands-on cooking, as well as a cookbook that’ll help you try out all the recipes at home. We each made five dishes, and I would tell you that mine were better than Lori’s, but that simply wouldn’t be true.
4) Good WiFi and lots of coffee shops
Don’t think internet speed matters?
Picture a digital nomad, crunching out e-mails on a deadline and getting ready to hop on a Skype meeting with her international teammates. Suddenly, the internet goes out and all forward progress is lost.
That’s a real, regular occurrence if you’re in working somewhere with a less reliable technology infrastructure (and I could rattle off a handful in Southeast Asia alone…*ahem* Myanmar, Laos, Vietnam…).
Chiang Mai’s average internet speed (measured in megabytes per second, or MBPS) is 33 - nearly equal to that of Washington, DC.
Couple that with a wide variety of coffee shops and coworking spaces for a digital nomad to get out of the house and interact with others (while inhaling caffeine), and you’re in digital heaven.
5) Big city, small feel
Interestingly, while Chiang Mai feels relatively small and manageable, its metropolitan area actually (population: 1 million) makes it Thailand’s second-largest area after Bangkok.
What’s nice, however, is that for those staying in Chiang Mai proper, you’re one of only 160,000 people - as the vast majority of residents live outside of the city itself.
You’ll never feel alone, with lots of buzzing activity and tourism year-round in Chiang Mai, but because there aren’t many residents in the heart of the city, it’s possible to find quiet places to live - and even a few great, quiet, green parks in which you can get your zen on. The locals are friendly and the large ex-pat community in Chiang Mai will serve as an immediate welcoming committee for those looking to make new friends, too.
6) The weather is awesome
The mean temperature in Chiang Mai is 78.4 degrees fahrenheit. You read that correctly.
Sure, there are plenty of days, especially in March, April, and May, where the high temperature regularly breaks 90 degrees. And yes, like most of Southeast Asia, Chiang Mai has a rainy season; August and September are especially wet.
With all that said, if you like sunshine and skipping cold American/European winters, Chiang Mai is a place where you can enjoy Thai culture in a reasonably-sized city, live on the cheap, and soak in an enormous amount of culture (plus eat well every day). And hey, you can rock out in shorts and a t-shirt year-round, too!
Have questions or comments about Chiang Mai? Ideas on other great cities for digital nomads? Feel free to comment below!