For the past six weeks we’ve been settled down in Chiang Mai, catching up on work and doing some editing. If I had to pick somewhere to live in the world, right now, for the long term, it would be here. For me, it has the right combination of everything I need:
- It’s cheap
- It’s not overly touristy
- It’s close to lots of day trips, like trekking or the Burmese border
- There is so much culture
- It’s easy to stay in Thailand long term, by renewing your visa in neighboring countries
- The food is amazing
- The people have been wonderful and the expats and locals live together well — there is some division, but you’ll also see Farang and Thai families eating at the same places
- There is a lot of volunteer opportunities
- It has an airport
- It’s close to a major hub (Bangkok) for cheap international flights
- It’s laid back
- There’s nightlife if you want it
- There’s every imaginable self-improvement class you can imagine: from yoga to cooking classes to Thai massage
- It’s family friendly
- It’s warm (no winter here, but there is a rainy season)
- Medical care is ultra affordable
- In short, the quality of life is extremely high and the cost is low
I was so enamored with the place (and many of the people I’ve met since being here) that I even looked into staying. I found an established 10 room guesthouse (listed in Lonely Planet and in the perfect location) for rent via a local real estate agent. The owner wanted to retire and travel. We sat with her for an hour and worked out how I could run the place and make a decent income here in Chiang Mai. It even has a small restaurant and she offered to get us a Thai liquor license — think of the profit margin on beer! It was a fun exercise, a pleasant dream, but in the moment that it became even remotely possible, I knew instantly there was no way I was ready to stay put. I filed “running a Thai Guesthouse” under “definitely possible, maybe someday”.
A snapshot of our life
We’re renting a studio apartment by the month, for $300. It doesn’t have a kitchen, a surprise for me, until I put together that most people don’t have kitchens here. Food is cooked communally at the night markets, and at $1 for a typical entrée, you’d be hard pressed to save money by cooking at home.
It’s possible to rent a place in Chiang Mai for a lot less, but we liked the extras like a rooftop pool and gym, ground floor restaurant, room service, weekly room cleaning, and cable TV. There’s also a place that will do your laundry for a fee, a small shop and a french bakery next door.
The baby really likes the pool. I’m not sure when the next time will be that we’ll be able to give him something like this, so we’re trying to take advantage of it while we can.
The view from rooftop gym…
The room also came with a Thai Cookbook on how to make Thai food in the microwave. I can’t read any of it, but it’s still fun to flip through.
Total costs for our apartment $353/mo. Here’s the breakdown :
$34/mo electricity (based on use)
We rented a bike, through a friend, so we’re just paying $50/mo for our motorbike. I’ve heard that it can cost $100/mo if you don’t have a connection. We paid $26 for brand new helmets (three total, 2 adults and 1 child). There are also tuk tuks that will charge you about $2-3 for a short trip across town. The song taews, or community vans, cost a flat 75 cents for anywhere within Chiang Mai (20 baht).
Total costs for transportation:
$26 one-time for helmets
Most places in Chiang Mai are within walking distance.
The real reason we love Chiang Mai: The Food
There is a night market near us at Chiang Mai gate. I think it might be the best in the city. Every night, vendors set up from scratch (in the morning it’s an outdoor clothing market) and they cook delicious Thai food made to order. Not only is it the best Thai food I’ve ever had, but I’ve also gotten to know many of the vendors, at least as much as you can when you don’t share a language, as they whisk my child away as soon as my food is ready, and frequently leave me to eat with my husband while they feed him watermelon and coo at him in Thai.
Everyone eats at outdoor tables set up between the food stalls (or they get their food take-away).
I would be remiss if I didn’t post at least one photo of the “Spicy Lady”. Do you see the surgical mask she wears? It’s not because she’s afraid of swine flu. It’s because the food she cooks is so spicy, so loaded with super hot Thai chili peppers, that the smoke alone will make you cough. If the breeze goes the right way, you might get a lung-full, immediately launch into a coughing fit and she’ll point and laugh at you. Secretly, I think she’s trying to kill us. But her food, oh god, it’s so good.
Our nightly ritual
Every night we cross the street to Chiang Mai gate….
We walk along the food stalls…
We decide what to order…
And then we wait for them to bring it to us at our table. After we’re done eating, then we walk around and pay all the vendors. I’m not sure how, but somehow they keep track of it all without ever writing an order down.
Dinner for Two
A big dinner might look like this:
A Strawberry and Lime Fruit Shake: 50 cents
4 skewers of Pork Satay: 60 cents
An order of Pad Kra Pow with Gai (Fried Basil Leaves with Chicken): $1
5 mini donuts: 15 cents
Total for dinner: $2.25 per person
A Sample of Other Potential Costs
1 hour Thai massage: $5
Large Beer (like Chang) bought at 7-11: $1.33
Large Beer (like Chang) bought at a restaurant: $2-3
Coffee to-go: $1
Pizza Hut Pizza, Large: $15
Emergency room visit, 3 stitches: $50
Diapers: $6.80 for 15
Christmas tree: Free if you don’t mind visiting our lobby to see it.