12 Dec Things We Would (and Wouldn’t) Do Again in Chiang Mai, Thailand
If there were such a thing as a Digital Nomad Capital of the world, Chiang Mai, Thailand would be it. Since becoming location independent, this is the place we kept hearing about over and over. Nearly every nomad and traveler who had been there, raved about it.
We had to go and see for ourselves! We booked ourselves a one-month stay during our Fall Southeast Asia trip. Here’s our super quick recap video:
Our Honest Take On Chiang Mai
To be honest, we didn’t fall head over heels in love.
Why? I think we were expecting some place a bit more quaint. As we all know, expectations rarely serve you well in travel! That being said, we don’t particularly love bigger cities to begin with. And while Chiang Mai doesn’t have sky scrapers, it does have crowds and traffic – meanwhile, it’s not particularly walkable. It could certainly be much worse, and none of these things were really deal breakers. We just didn’t hit off right away.
I think another big draw for most Digital Nomads to Chiang Mai is the fact that there are so many other nomads (especially in November) and so many co-working spaces. I can see why this is important to people – especially nomads who are traveling alone and seeking community. As a married couple, though, we have each other to talk to, and we don’t mind working mostly from “home” and the occasional coffee shop. So that networking aspect isn’t as attractive to us as it may be to others. (That being said, wherever we go, we love meeting up with friends and people we’ve connect with through blogging, and we certainly did a fair amount of that in Chiang Mai, thanks to it being such a popular place for people to visit.)
Another aspect of the big Digital Nomad community in Chiang Mai is that it seems to be somewhat dominated by the sub-genre some like to call “bro-mads.” Personally, we were drawn to the location independent life because of freedom and flexibility. We don’t make a ton of money but we don’t have to because we live simply and because living abroad is cheaper for us. But not everyone is in it for the same reasons. Some people work like crazy and make tons of money – and/or spend tons of money because their dollars go so much farther in Thailand. In these circles, you’ll start to hear a lot of bro-mad words like “crushing it” and “six figure business” and “sales funnel.” It’s impressive what they’re doing, but we don’t necessarily connect with that brand of nomadism ourselves.
Here’s the thing: I’m starting off with a less-than-sunny picture of Chiang Mai because it seems like no one else is talking about the down sides. In actuality, we warmed up to Chiang Mai and were sad to leave.
If we never go back again, I won’t feel like I’m missing out. But as one of our fellow nomads explained, when asked why she likes Chiang Mai so much: “It’s just easy.” Now I understand what she means, and I totally agree.
Chiang Mai truly is an approachable, easy city for foreigners to live in. Everything you could want is there and it’s so affordable – food from just about any region of the world, shopping and entertainment, gyms, hiking groups, good wifi, big box grocery stores, signs often in English, welcoming locals who don’t seem to mind the language barrier, etc., etc. After a short adjustment period, you can feel at ease. We felt a sense of freedom there to live the kind of life we wanted.
The main reason we could see ourselves coming back to Chiang Mai is not so much because we’d really miss it. We’d go back if there came a time when we just needed some place comfortable and low-cost to stay for a while. We know we could be content in Chiang Mai.
So that’s our take on Chiang Mai. (Keep reading for some of our recommendations…)
November’s lantern festival in Chiang Mai was magical, though – again, the traffic and crowds were nuts!
I couldn’t bring myself do our usual blog post about all the things to see and places to eat in this city. When it comes to Chiang Mai, that has been done over and over again. Instead, I’d like to share a list of the things we would definitely do again if we ever do come back to Chiang Mai.
5 things we’d do all over again in Chiang Mai
Like I said, I don’t know if it we’ll go back any time soon. But these are the things we loved from our one month stay and would do again if we could.
Rent a Scooter
Renting a scooter in Chiang Mai was highly recommended to us by fellow nomads. After traveling in S.E. Asia for a while, we had a good grasp on how traffic flowed and the variations in driving rules. Jedd had never actually driven a moped before, and the guy at the rental warned us that there had been quite a few accidents lately – especially with new renters losing control around their shop. So Jedd he took his time practicing on the quiet streets by the rental place – stopping and starting, turning, back and forth, then adding me as the second passenger.
We rented from Mango Bikes, which came highly recommended. I had to call back the first two days until they had a bike returned that we could use. Our one-month rental cost about $80 and included the two helmets and medical insurance for accidents.
The scooter gave us a ton of freedom, especially since our lovely Airbnb condo was outside of town. The only downside is that technically you’re supposed to have a Thai driver’s license (not even an international license counts) and the local police use this to earn extra cash under the table by pulling over foreigners. We were pulled over twice and charged 500 baht each time (about $14), although the second time it actually came with an official receipt which was supposedly to act as a “free pass” for the next five days!
Taking a scenic drive on the Samoeng loop outside Chiang Mai
One of Chiang Mai’s best advantages is being surrounded by green, with a chain of National Parks in the mountains to the West. We joined the Doi Duthep Walkers Facebook group for a vigorous hike up to the mountain temples one Saturday. If we returned, I’d definitely keep my eye on the other hiking group outings.
And we really enjoyed early morning runs around Huay Tuang Tao lake, too.
Something we didn’t understand about Thai people until we go there is that the average Thai family doesn’t really cook for themselves that much. Street food is so common and cheap, most people eat out frequently.
Chiang Mai has a number of night markets which are full of food carts. On Saturday and Sunday evenings, two different streets are closed off for pedestrians. Craft and food vendors line both sides of the street, making a great atmosphere to browse, people-watch, and sample various treats. Both walking streets got quite crowded by 7pm, so I highly recommend arriving close to 5pm (even before it’s technically open) for a more enjoyable experience. The Night Bazaar in Chiang Mai is not nearly as charming and the vendors not as original as these two walking street markets.
Whatever your neighborhood, you’ll probably have a night market or two popping up throughout the week. Two mainstay night markets are at the North gate and the South gate (Chiang Mai gate). The South gate quickly became one of our favorite places to eat. Pad thai, chicken and rice, Japanese takoyaki, crepes, and the famous Mrs. Pa’s smoothies were all great. The evening market has a mix of locals and foreigners but the early morning South gate market is almost 100% local (and a great place to get sticky rice with different toppings).
There is a happening cafe culture in Chiang Mai, and it’s not just Digital Nomads who enjoy them. While a latte may cost the same – if not more – than your whole meal at a street vendor, it’s still a relatively “affordable luxury.” The Nimman neighborhood, where many Digital Nomads and expats tend to congregate, has tons of cafes. Our favorites on our end of town were Mingmitr (a local chain) and the riverside Co-Working Cafe.
There are so many good things to eat in Chiang Mai. Our favorite treats were mango sticky rice, which we could get from either of two food courts in the shopping mall next to our place. Or, the cheapest we found were 40 baht and very colorful in the morning market at the Chiang Mai (south) gate.
Our other favorite discovery was a little bakery in the bottom floor of Central Festival Mall called Saint Etoile. Their specialty is a round, flaky, croissant-like pastry coated in a crunchy glaze. It was like croissant-meets-applefritter (without the apple) and it was hands down the most perfect pastry I have ever had in my pastry-filled life. The shop also had a wide variety of other sweet baked goods as well as some savory rolls with cheese or meat, which were good for taking on picnics. If we return to Chiang Mai, there’s no doubt that we’ll be honing in on Saint Etoile shortly after touch down.
Things we’d change
Granted, we didn’t do everything right the first time in Chiang Mai. We really loved our Airbnb set up – it was compact with a nice view, giant pool, fitness center, laundry, and strong wifi for $380 a month. However, it was a good drive into the heart of town and required taking highways. Next time, I think our preference would be to stay closer to the University area (and it just so happens that there’s a sister condo complex over there).
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The only activity we didn’t really love was our crazy hike up to the waterfall from Huay Tuang Tao lake. It’s a beautiful area. But the hike relied on GPS rather than official trail markings, and our GPS was not super reliable. Plus the trail was really overgrown. We ended up taking quite a few detours, came face to face with some truly giant spiders, and were pretty scratched up by the end. We had no idea what we were in for and I can’t say I’d recommend it to the average day hiker.
Other than that, we had an all around good time. We ate lots of good food, met up with some great people, kept up our exercise schedule, got our work done, explored on the scooter in our free time, and got to do a few little extras like the Kindred Spirit Elephant Sanctuary & Homestay.
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