Chiang Mai city is a beautiful combination of modern conveniences with 700 years of history. It is a rich and vibrant tourist center with many well known areas, activities and shopping options. It also a city with endless hidden gems your fellow expat friends will simply delight in showing you.
#2. Cost of Living in Chiang Mai
One of the big attractions of Chiang Mai, Thailand is its incredibly reasonable cost of living. Although you’ll hear the idea of “Living like a King for US$500 a month” floating around, it can be done but that only applies to the most minimalist of penny-pinching lifestyles. For a single individual, US$1000/month is more realistic but US$1500/month is more than ample to finance a quality of life fit for a King or a Queen (regional travel extra).
The Nomad List website, which compares the cost of living and quality of life of cities around the world, ranks Chiang Mai as one of the cheapest places offering the highest quality of life. While this website is more skewed to the younger traveler, its economic breakdown of hundreds of locations makes for interesting reading. This feature of affordability and cheap cost of living is supported by International Living, a subscription-based retirement community both online and in magazine form. When one researches articles and retirement companies assessing cost of living vs. quality of life locations, Chiang Mai is consistently in the top 5.
You can live here on an extreme budget, choosing accommodation like Siriruk Apartment for less than US$100 a month. Or for US$500 stay in a fully serviced Hotel like the Victoria. If you decide to stay here longer, month-to-month rent for a budget 30-45 square meter condo apartment starts at around 4000-7000 BHT.
If you are willing to sign a lease (usually 6 months minimum but sometimes you can find one for 3) you can save even more. Buying your own condo starts at around US$25,000 for a basic unit (35-45 sq.m) and more realistically for 80-100 sq.m and two bedrooms, you’re looking at around US$50k +. Houses can be purchased for US$50k and beyond. Of course, depending on your age, you could rent accommodations here for 30 years before you would spend what it would cost to purchase.
When purchasing property, the primary thing to consider is that non-Thai’s cannot own more than 49% of the land a property sites on. However, foreigners are permitted to own condominiums 100%. To get an idea of the type and quality of condo rental or home purchase you can expect for the price, we recommend you look at this local, Guroo-approved real estate agency.
Motorbike rentals can start as low as $60 a month for an older, 100 cc manual motorcycle, but always beware of the quality of a cheap bike rental. You are much better off spending $90-100 and get a newer 125cc bike large enough and with enough power for larger, Western body frames.
Food in typical no-frills, family-run Thai restaurants can start as low as 25 BHT and seldom goes past 40 (US 75 cents to $1.20). Most people tend to go to the local places in more urban areas where you are looking at US$2-4 for a meal. Western food usually costs more, but it’s still far cheaper than typical prices in your home country. Any way you slice it or dice it, you will inevitably come to the conclusion that eating out is cheaper and better than cooking at home.
#3. A Vibrant Expat Social Community
Chiang Mai has an incredible amount of social network groups and communities providing tons of interesting options for things to do. The social communities in Chiang Mai, provide information on the “how, where and when”, and arrange endless group outings, as well as host their own social events.
Westerners in Chiang Mai have over the years built social and entertainment networks that allow you to do something new almost every day. Lana Cricket has used the Gymkhana sports grounds for over 50 years, providing a wide variety of tennis, golf, cricket and other sporting and social events.
One of the most popular local communities is the Chiang Mai Expat Club, which holds a variety of scheduled events and activities. The Expat Club has a one-off 1000 BHT membership (US$27) and is a popular resource for many businesses that specifically cater to the expat and retired community. Not to mention the fantastic breakfasts and meals they put on at their numerous social events. The Chiang Mai Expat group really is your one stop shop to a new social network and introduction to people who have once been where you are and now openly share their wisdom and knowledge.
A handful of the many established social networking groups and events in Chiang Mai include:
- Chiang Mai Expats Club — Helps expats expand friendships and improve their quality of life. CEC is a non-profit social organization operating with a theme of “Expats Helping Expats” to reside safely and legally in Thailand and to adapt and understand the local customs and traditions.
- Chiang Mai – For people wanting to come to, already living or just interested in Chiang Mai.
- Chiang Mai Digital Nomads — The premier site that connects the Digital Nomad Community of Chiang Mai. Referred to as “The Office” by site creator/manager Dan O’Donnell who created “The Break Room” for social posts by Chiang Mai Digital Nomads
- I Love Chiang Mai – We all love Chiang Mai – there is a great files section with loads of information. This group requires a membership request to join.
- Whats Happening Chang Mai – The primary focus of ‘What’s Happening Chiang Mai’ is to provide a voice to those connected to Burma and social justice issues generally. We welcome posts that are of value to the audience, advertising events and important news affecting our community.
- What, Where, When Chiang Mai – A page for people, event organizers, promoters, bar owners and club owners to let everyone know what’s happening in Chiang Mai. Feel free to add people to the group. The more people that are on here, the more we’ll know what’s happening in and around Chiang Mai.
#4. Cheap Medical Service Providers
Thailand is a well-known medical tourism destination. Medical treatment here is first-rate and typically a fraction of the cost of where you live now. Medical and dental treatment is both top-rate and affordable as is cosmetic surgery. In fact, even health insurance is affordable for expats living here full time.
An expert dental cleaning is about 600 BHT (US$17), x-rays only 800 BHT, (US$22), a quality medical check-up from a doctor around 500 BHT (US$14), and medical certificates for the various support documentation requirements you’ll need are 300 BHT (US$8). For insurance, Guroo Asia (an authorized AIS insurance broker) will set you up with a premium health insurance policy for much less than you’d pay in your home country.
The cost of hospitalization on a private ward is a fraction of the cost back home. Many expensive medicines are available locally in generic form yet provided at considerably cheaper cost. You can, of course, still get brand name prescription medicines if you wish.
#5. In-House Nurse Aids and Retirement Communities
If your health requires a little more attention, or if the need ever arises to go into an extended care facility, Chiang Mai has you covered here as well. You can hire your own nurse or caregiver on a short-term, live-in basis for about 15,000 BHT per month.
Chiang Mai’s retirement communities and extended care facilities are luxury palaces providing accommodation, meals, doctors, nurses, social outings, and in-patient facilities starting at about US$2000 per month (everything covered).
#6. The People of Chiang Mai
Due to its Northern location, Chiang Mai is influenced by the ‘Lanna’ and Hill Tribe traditions and people who remain a definitive influence on the cultural traditions and values of the city. The Lanna heritage takes shape all over the city in the form of language, clothing, art, architecture, music, food, and more. The people here often still wear traditional clothing which may be dyed cobalt blue or an array of other colors.
Another characteristic of Lanna that people notice immediately is the sheer volume of artistry infused in the local culture. Chiang Mai has long been an arts center with areas like the Ban Tawai wood carvers enclave and the Bor Sang umbrella-making village.
If you are the type of individual who thrives on arts and crafts, nowhere else in Thailand (possibly Asia) boosts so many businesses and even entire villages dedicated to art and crafts. You can visit workshops and learn about the production of silk or silver, and purchase memorable, hand-crafted souvenirs.
The presence of numerous hill tribes featuring a wealth of unique cultures enhances Chiang Mai’s distinctive diversity. Hill tribe trekking, often combined with river rafting and elephant riding, has always been one of Chiang Mai’s greatest tourist attractions.
Thailand is often promoted as the land of smiles, and nowhere more is this present than Chiang Mai. The people here are friendly, helpful and incredibly honest. Unlike other destinations in Asia and around the world, the locals here are not always looking for a way to gouge the Western tourist. Locals will help you in times of need, and some of the sweetest demeanors in the world belong to Northern Thai women. One of the great things about being in Chiang Mai is you don’t always need to be on guard that your wallet is about to be taken advantage of.
#7. Non Sex-Tourist Destination
Chiang Mai is a traditional city populated by locals from surrounding rural areas (80% of those living in the Chiang Mai district are locals from birth). As the locals are very much immersed in the practice of traditional values and culture, Chiang Mai is far from the stereotypical images of Thailand you’ll see in the movies (i.e. Hangover).
Another facet of Chiang Mai is its growing world-wide recognition as the the Digital Nomad capital of the world. A reasonable cost of living, IT infrastructure and many rich endowments draws thousands of visitors from around the world who enjoy portable careers in interesting locations. Far from the backpacker crowd, these individuals are collectively becoming an economic driver in the new digital tourism age.
Chiang Mai is also a relaxed city. Things happen at a slower pace and no one here is ever really in a hurry. The city is big enough to occupy most people and tastes, but it lacks the “zoom zoom” speed of other Asian cities. Those who choose to live here truly appreciate these unique charms as they know it’s always only a short hopper flight to countless other cities where fast is the “normal” pace.
#8. Abundance of Quality Accommodations
Chiang Mai City is growing. From almost any view in any Condo or monthly rental accommodation you can see new buildings going up. Long-term condo leasing (6-12 months) is easily found and shorter-term (3 months), although more difficult, is not impossible. The short-term visitor is best served by the many apartment complexes offering month-to-month terms.
There are a range of websites that cater to those looking to rent a house or condo (Guroo recommends Expat Homes). Discounts for longer-term leases is the norm. In the heart of the city prices are a little higher, but for those who don’t mind living a little further out (5-10 km), one can find beautiful, new, and often fully furnished 3 bedroom houses for the same price as an inner city condo (starting around 8500 BHT (US$ 250) per month. If you do not mind an older place, you can easily find a 2 bedroom house for around 6000 baht (US$180).
Many new gated communities have been recently developed that are heavily populated with expats, retired couples, singles, and mixed relationships. There is absolutely no shortage of quality homes in amazing surroundings.
#9. Fantastic Weather
From November to February the weather in Chiang Mai is absolutely perfect. Clear blue skies with 30°C temperatures and low humidity during the day with surprisingly cooler temperatures at night (jacket required).
Around mid-March the temperature shifts into high gear, but since Chiang Mai is located at higher altitudes in the mountains, it’s always a few degrees lower than anywhere else in Thailand and most places in Asia.
The rainy season begins around May and sometimes goes until October. The name is a misnomer, actually, since the daily showers last only for 30-60 minutes (and it’s a downpour!). Residents will typically have about 30 minutes warning as the dark clouds roll in then the winds pick up about 10 minutes before. The refreshing breeze and cooler temps are always welcome relief from the heat.
During the rainy season (which really should be called “the daily hour of rain”), the lush surrounding areas of Chiang Mai are absolutely stunning. During this period, day trips, short visits to tourists spots, and spur of the moment adventures will offer some of the best photo opportunities you can imagine.
Worst case, if you do not want to ride in the rain (which isn’t really that bad with a good raincoat or poncho), for 30-60 minutes you’ll be forced to stop, relax and enjoy a delicious treat at a cafe along the way.
#10. World’s Best Food
Thai food is amazing for both its flavor and presentation. The cost of eating here in Chiang Mai is about one-fifth the price of what you would pay back home. The fancier restaurants here deliver so much more for so much less than one is typically accustomed.
Food stalls and markets are in great abundance all around the city where one can sample delicious, local dishes for US$1-5 a meal. Well-known Thai favorites like Pad Thai and green curry are readily available, as well as local favorites like Khao Soi for which Chiang Mai is famous.
If you decide to attend a cooking school (around US$30 for a half to full day), you will discover much about the local produce and new secrets to creating amazing flavors. Vegetarians are extremely well catered to here as Thais often go meatless in their meals for special Buddha events. When you tire of Thai food, there are hundreds of restaurants catering to every imaginable taste—German, Indian, Mexican, Italian or Greek—you name it, Chiang Mai has an expat who has decided to open it.
#11. Cheap & Fresh Produce
For foodies who love to cook for themselves (although most give up on this idea after living here a week or two since it is so much cheaper and better dining out), Chiang Mai’s local markets are for you. A busy and popular place, here you will find local and imported foods from other regions of Thailand at lower prices than the supermarkets.
The sheer selection available from local food markets can be slightly overwhelming for the new arrival but you will soon get the hang of it. One of the Royal projects was to help the farmers convert from growing drugs to growing food. Farmers were taught how to grow particular crops and shown how to do it well. The end result is an abundance of both tropical and native fruits and vegetables unparalleled to anything you will experience back home.
#12. Beautiful Scenery & Landscapes
Because Chiang Mai is located in the mountains of Northern Thailand, it’s not ideal if you can’t live without that daily trip to the beach (although flights cost very little to get away for a week).
Although Chiang Mai does have many great places for swimming, this is mountain country full of lush forests, trails, old villages, rice fields, elephants, gardens, lakes, caves, temples, national parks, and more. Just a short drive outside of Chiang Mai is another world. Forests with elephants, monkeys, rice paddy fields, coffee plantations, mist-steeped mountains, lakes—the list goes on and on.
Her Majesty Queen Sirikit has an avid interest in gardens so there are many “Queen’s Gardens” spread around the province. Even for the die-hard adventure fan, there is something truly relaxing about sipping on a coconut water next to lush and exotic species of plants that flower and bloom under cover of cool, tropical shade.
The scenery (both natural and man-made) along the sides of Temples, tended to over centuries by monks and villagers is both breathtaking and mesmerizing. Just look at the amazing photographs you’ll find with a simple Google image search of Chiang Mai.
#13. The Temples
Temples are often the beginning and end place where Thais seek answers to any problems they have and nowhere will you find a higher concentration of functioning temples than Chiang Mai. It’s estimated the Old City alone has 300. There are large temples, gold temples, silver temples, old ruins that are still in operation and temples for particular villages.
The photo opportunities for golden-laced statues surrounded by orange and red-clothed monks of all ages are endless as you could spend months going to different places everyday.
The Monks of Chiang Mai are everywhere and held in high regard by the people of Chiang Mai. Early risers will frequently see monks collecting alms along the sides of the road, traveling in public transport, or being fed by doting local establishments.
Thai culture is highly valued in Chiang Mai—much more so than other major cities in Thailand. Although one can find churches here, Thailand is relatively free from Western religion as the vast majority of the population (99%) is Buddhist. This fierce cultural pride is proudly displayed in the day-to-day activities of the residents.
For Westerners, each is a magnificent reminder that we are indeed privileged visitors in another world. Your friends and family will be envious of the amazing photographs you email back home or post on Facebook.
#14. Thai Holidays & Festivals
The culture in Chiang Mai is vibrant and celebrated often. Festivals and public holidays are times when locals, resident expats and tourists take time to enjoy the many colourful and exotic festivities. In particular, Songkran and Loy Krathong are two spectacular events that draw tourists from overseas and Thais from other regions of the country. These two events should be on everyone’s bucket list.
Thai people generally believe that life brings with it a fair share of misery, so they take each and every opportunity to celebrate happiness. This theme is often conveyed in the many festivals and celebrations—all spectacular events to watch or partake in.
#15. Chiang Mai Coffee
Do you like Coffee? The people in Chiang Mai love it. The region cultivates 100% organic coffee grown under natural shade at high attitudes and is hand picked, wet processed, sun-dried and packaged with single source beans.
Hundreds of cafes that fill every corner of the city have house coffees supplied by these local producers. The coffee here is what is known as the top 1% (aficionados who spend time slurping and spitting it out).
In Chiang Mai, you are free to spend hours enjoying spectacular coffee in a mind-boggling array of quality coffee shops, most of which provide air-conditioning on hot days with free and fast WiFi. Coffee shops are located both within the city and on the outskirts nestled in beautiful surroundings.
Many shops will offer prepackaged coffee for you to take home and enjoy in your own condo or house. There is nothing nicer than starting your day with a fresh brew of some of the best coffee in the world that you bought for $12 a kilo.
#16. No Horns, Hustlers, Poverty or Ripoffs
One of the more unpleasant things about living or traveling in Asia is the constant harassment you get from the traders who are all just trying to make a living. Sales people, Tuk Tuk drivers and beggars on the street will follow and bother you hoping that you will purchase their wares. This does not happen in Chiang Mai. The local people here are respectful and polite. Here, your “No” means no and you are immediately left alone.
Prices are often listed on items at stores and markets, and unlike other places, it is the same price for locals as it is the Westerners. You can still bargain in many places and never feel like you are being ripped off.
Regarding traffic noise, Thailand in general (not just Chiang Mai) does not use the horn like in the Philippines or Vietnam. It can can get very annoying and make it difficult to relax with a wine, beer or coffee if every car and motorcycle passing by is tooting its horn. Rest assured, this typical Asian experience will not be an issue for you here in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is rated as one of the safest cities in the world. Crime against foreigners is extremely rare, and apart from riding a motorcycle, you will never feel intimidated or afraid for your safety. Even a single woman walking alone can walk around freely and comfortably either during the day or late at night and feel totally safe.
The scams that fill the headlines in Western media about Thailand and Asia just do not happen here in Chiang Mai—or at least it’s very, very rare. The one exception is the Mob run Karaoke Bars along Chang Klan road. Here you can go in for an hour, have a few drinks with a few ladies and come out with a 30,000 BHT bill. Many (often drunk and loud) Westerners do not understand how a few drinks and a couple of ladies flirting with them can cost $1000. The answer is simple. IT’S A SCAM Just don’t go there.
There is a special division of Police in Thailand, called the Tourist Police, whose sole job is to help any Westerners in distress. Most of the time they are quick to respond and work on your behalf. The rest of the time (and this is slowly changing), Thai justice is not so much what has happened as who you know and how much ‘instant’ fines you are prepared to pay.
Generally, however, compared to the rest of the world, Chiang Mai is very safe. It is part of the values and culture here in Chiang Mai – crime is a sin and a sign of a weak person. It rarely occurs compared to other cultures and cities.
#18. Endless Things to Do
There is so much more to retirement than sitting back and relaxing—and in Chiang Mai there are endless things to do in your downtime. You can experience here for real the Elephant Painting videos you’ve seen on YouTube. You can visit the many Wats (temples), learn to cook Thai food or give a Thai massage. You can learn a new language or become qualified to teach English and donate time helping children under the care of local charities.
Chiang Mai is a popular tourist destination that caters to every type of activity. You can learn how to train elephants, go to luxurious spas and retreats, and take advantage of all the activities and infrastructure in place for the tourist. As someone living here, you’ll enjoy instant access to the many social groups and activities arranged by locals for locals.
When you finally get bored with spending days relaxing by the pool drinking cool coconut water or puttering around in your garden, there is more than enough to do in Chiang Mai to keep you active and busy for years.
#19. Cheap and Efficient Transport
You can hire a motorbike for 3000 baht a month (more or less), or engage public transport which is both plentiful and affordable. Chiang Mai is full of taxis, songthaews (red group taxis) and tuk-tuks. Taxis are not allowed to drive around looking for customers and there only a small handful of motorcycle taxis.
You can jump on a songthaew for travel towards your destination for just 20 BHT (these “red buses” are typically not a door-to-door service). Tuk tuks cost between 60-100 BHT for a 5-kilometer trip depending on the time of day (and how well you haggle). Hiring Cars for day trips runs around 800-1200 BHT. If you need to do a visa run or want to visit another city (or country), travel by bus, train, tour vans and hopper flights are both incredibly cheap and frequent.
Chiang Mai has an international Airport with flights to many different countries starting at $100 USD. The destination choices are almost endless. With Chiang Mai as your base, you can easily visit another country for a weekend or a week for just a few hundred dollars. You can fly to Bangkok in one hour and 15 minutes. If you fancy a trip to the beach, the endless special offers for flights within Thailand can sometimes land you a flight for as little at $40 (usually $60-100).
#20. Visas are Easy to Get
Relative to other countries, getting a retirement visa for Thailand is an easy and affordable process. The paperwork requirement will vary depending on where your application is filed. For those applying from within Thailand on a tourist visa, Guroo Asia offers comprehensive retirement visa support services with pricing that varies depending on one’s application requirements. We take the hassle away and do all the required work for you.
#21. Everything You Need is Here
Chiang Mai is small enough to quickly learn your way around yet big enough to have something for everyone.
As you’ve read, there are may reasons why Chiang Mai is such a popular place to retire: accommodations are plentiful and cheap; part-time or live-in maids are readily available; medical and dental services are both top-notch and affordable; Western-owned and themed bars and restaurants are plentiful; not to mention the food, festivals, expat clubs, golf, tennis, swimming, dance groups, acting classes, yoga studios, fitness centres—the list of things for a rich, high-quality of life here goes on and on.
The only thing you won’t find in Chiang Mai is a tropical beach—but cheap return jumper flights are always just minutes away.
#22. Guroo Asia
We at Guroo Asia are here to help with your transition to and life in a wonderful new city in a fascinating country. We offer support for exploratory visits by arranging airport pickup, short-term accommodation, SIM cards and orientation support for exploring the city.
Our staff will assist you with the small and big issues you will encounter settling into a new city and culture. When you are ready to come for your extended stay, we can help you negotiate lease agreements, major purchases, visas and point you in the direction of English speaking businesses which cater specifically to expats looking to retire in Chiang Mai.