Tips on being an expat in Chiang Mai

The chill city of Chiang Mai, Thailand

One year ago today, after an epic road trip across America, I embarked on my latest chapter of my life — becoming an expat and living in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

This gorgeous and relaxing town in northern Thailand is a hot spot for digital nomads, largely because of the inexpensive lifestyle that can be achieved here.

People who come here either love it or hate it. Me? I didn’t come to Chiang Mai to be a backpacker or a digital nomad, I came for my position with Save Elephant Foundation. It wasn’t the city that enticed me, it was the elephants.

I remember my first real night living in Chiang Mai. I had just returned from visiting Elephant Nature Park for the first time in almost a year. Alone, and knowing no one, I sat down at a local restaurant. Within minutes, I was under fire from the local older men in the area.

“Who are you?”

“Where are you from?”

“What are you doing here?”

At first I was really intimidated, but I quickly realized, these folks weren’t out to get me, they were curious. I was the new girl on the block, and I held as much intrigue for them as they did for me. Sure, the new friendships was an unlikely match — I can’t think of anyone over 60 in my old life who I would count as a friend — but it worked.

I still wasn’t charmed by the city … any relationship takes time and patience and a mutual understanding. Even as it relates to the non-human kind.

Now, a year later, yes, I have fallen head-over-heels with Chiang Mai and being an expat. But, life as an expat in Chiang Mai definitely can teach you plenty of lessons, as well as have its challenges. And moments of magic.

Finding a place to live is easy (as)

The view from the roof of the old city and Chiang Mai Gate

Within a day, I had a place to live when I arrived to Chiang Mai. Yes, it is that easy. There are plenty of pages on Facebook dedicated to Chiang Mai and a simple post within a forum, or a search of documents, can take you to apartment listings.

Just by where I used to live, there are three Western-style apartments complete with serviced rooms. They tend to be more pricey than Thai-style (think no AC, no TV), but regardless of your budget, there is something to be found. And easy.

When I moved into Smith, the only thing I needed to give them was a cash deposit. It isn’t like in America where they request a letter from your employer or a pay stub or any of those other things. Nope. Money equals a place to rest your head. Easy. As.

Street food is your savior

On a budget? Try dining on street food in Chiang Mai

People always ask me if I am worried about getting food poisoning from street food. My answer? Nope. Sure, I don’t see health inspectors coming around and checking to make sure meat is kept in proper conditions, etc., but whatever. It’s Thailand. You have to operate on trust that the food you are eating is OK. Yes, I have heard of instances where people get sick from the food, but it isn’t often.

Plus, dinner for under $1? Yes. Please.

Which leads me to the other topic of food …

It is easy to be a vegetarian

Vegetarian options abound at the markets in Chiang Mai

The local markets sell heaps of fresh fruit and veggies, and nearly every restaurant I eat at has veggie options. I get tired of nuts and tofu and eggs, but there are some restaurants here that offer up a sweet amount of choices beyond just stir-fried veggies. My favorite is Taste from Heaven and the little Chinese restaurant and veggie food stand by my house — both make killer fried mushrooms. I promise, they are KILLER.

Bugs are a part of life

I don’t like bugs. I seriously don’t like spiders. Or ants. Or cockroaches. And you know what? They all live together in my little house. In my old life, this would have been unacceptable. Now, seeing a spider scurry across my bed (hey, my walls are teak boards with cracks that let in sunlight) makes me uneasy, but, hey, I share my life with them. Leeches on the other hand? No. Just, no.

Same goes with the geckos. They are everywhere. I find them cute. Until they fall on the table in front of me. Then, I stifle a scream and go on with life.

If there is one thing about living in Chiang Mai, I’ve certainly chilled out in regards to the bugs. Although if one lands on me, you can bet your ass I still have a minor freak out.

Amazing people come, amazing people go

In my year here, I have made so many phenomenal friends. And said “see you soon” to nearly all of them. Whether just stopping in town for a few months or longer and then packing bags and heading to the next journey, Chiang Mai is a transient town. More transient than I imagined, and far more unstable in terms of routine than I have ever experienced before (sans my long-term backpacking trip).

It  doesn’t get easier, either.

The community here, the one I am a part of, is such an eclectic mix of people. It’s all ages. Varied nationalities. Different passions. And yet, this little community loves each other. The people in my life are all so incredibly random and beautiful, and the support I have received from them has made my year so special. When I first began to have my anxiety attacks, it was two people I had known for less than six months who come to my aid. Who wiped the tears from my eyes. Who got me out of the panic and fear I was staring dead on.

Everyone helps everyone out. People put aside their differences and at the end of the night, can all still sit together at the local restaurant or at Smith and have a beer. The attitude of “hey, we’re all in this together” is universal in the expat community. It’s evident even with strangers — there are heaps of Facebook groups like “I ❤ Chiang Mai” that encourage interaction.

It is comforting. It is nice. It is the next-best-thing to having my family here.

Yes, it changes. It morphs into shades of different often, but at the end of the day, the attitude is the same — we all have each other’s backs. It is a beautiful, special thing that I have not found anywhere else in the world.

The cost of living

Thai baht and your cost of living in Chiang Mai

Life can be cheap in Chiang Mai. Super cheap. When I first checked into Smith, I was shocked that my room was under $300 a month. Going from a paying a lot to a little is intoxicating. Then, paying $1 for pad thai, under $2 for a beer, under $1 for a “cab” ride … it made me dizzy. And, I started taking advantage of the cheap living and spending, spending, spending. A bottle of big water for 15 baht?!? That bottle is at least $2 in America .. and here? 50 cents? Dear god, yes.

I eat out a lot. Every meal, actually. Why? Well, for nine months, I didn’t have a kitchen. I had a microwave and a little fridge. And it was so much easier just to go out to the market by my house and drop 30 baht than anything else. Today, I’ve got a house, a big fridge, a gas stove and a microwave oven. You know what? I still go out to eat. I’m a crap cook, I’m a crap buyer-of-produce and I prefer instant (or near instant) gratification. Therefore, I fork over the money for this.

I can get by on about 20,000 baht a month, all in. Sometimes, I spend more. Like, when I want to go shopping or have a nice night out at a wine bar. Or indulge in my weekly (or more) massages. But, hey, for under $5 for an hour, why wouldn’t I treat myself to a little decadence as often as possible?

Everything you need exists at Tesco Lotus

When I first arrived here, I was scared I wouldn’t be able to find clothing. I’m not a teeny tiny Thai person, I’m a Western gal and my leg is not the size of my arm, which makes buying clothing here a challenge.

Enter Tesco Lotus.

Sure, I’m an XL at the store, but it doesn’t matter to me. It means I don’t have to ship in clothing from America (which, by the way, would not suggest doing unless all tags are removed and clothing is washed; otherwise you are slapped with heavy import fees). Oh, did I mention the clothing is cheap? 300 baht for a pair of capris. 400 baht for a cute dress. Yeah … I’m in cheap clothing heaven.

Plus, my TL is like a Target. Seriously. I could spend hours just wandering the store. It’s got everything. Bedding, candles, cleaning supplies, furniture, groceries. [It should be noted if you have any fashion sense at all you will lose it once you move here. Seriously. I live in comfortable clothing to beat the heat.]

Yup. In. Love.

No ride in the Old City or around the moat should be more than 20 baht

A ride around Chiang Mai's moat should be 20 baht

“D, I am in a songthaew right now coming from Chiang Mai Gate to Loi Kroh,” my friend says into the phone. “He charged me 30 baht.”

I put my head in my hands.

It is so easy to get scammed by the songthaew drivers here. There have been plenty of times where I ask for a ride that isn’t more than five minutes and the driver tries to charge me 100 baht.

“Mai chai,” I always say. “I live here. Twenty baht.”

Normally, it isn’t a problem. If it is, they pass me up and I hop in the next.

Chiang Mai tuk tuk

Or, if you want to spend a little more (or if it is late at night/early in the morning), your only normal bet is the tuk tuk. The prices can be jacked up for a tuk tuk, depending on location. Never accept the first offer, normally you can talk down a driver at least 20 baht or more.

Get a motorbike

Need transportation in Chiang Mai? Rent a motorbike.

I’m a serious chicken when it comes to motorbikes. It wasn’t even until a few weeks ago I let my friend give me my first lesson, which included about two minutes of sitting on the bike, clutching the gas and brake and propelling myself about a centimeter.

Perhaps it is because I have had limited experiences on motorbikes in my life, and the closest I have come to riding one is sitting on the back and whispering in my friend’s ear to “please drive slow or I may freak out and fall off and die.”

But, seriously, if you are going to live in Chiang Mai, get a motorbike. Take it from me, who doesn’t have one. Having a motorbike opens up the city and beyond. It lets you drive to Tesco Lotus instead of taking a yellow songthaew and being at the mercy of the 10 baht bus schedule. It lets you pop down to get a coffee, or go see a movie without relying on public transportation.

And, if you aren’t going to get a motorbike, get a bike. And, no, I don’t have one of those either. Remember, I’m a chicken. The drivers here scare me. However, for all of you far braver folk, you won’t be sorry. Just ask any friend of mine. They have one or the other … or both.

Get out of town

Chiang Mai is mesmerizing. It is quaint. It has adorable little quirks, hip and trendy areas and a moat (!). But, like any place you live, every now and then it is important to escape Chiang Mai, get perspective (ex. a sweet vacation in Koh Samui or an adventure in Sri Lanka) and then come back and fall more in love.

Visit the White Temple in Chiang Mai

Fortunately, there are plenty of budget airlines that grant you that wish — which can even be pretty last-minute — without breaking the bank. Three major budget airlines run out of CNX: Air Asia, Nok Air and Bangkok Air. But, that isn’t all. You can often find deals on Thai Airways and others, too. Monitor the Web sites, they all have killer sales sometimes.

Beyond escaping via plane, there are plenty of day trips or overnight trips that can satiate the need to explore beyond the backyard. Chiang Rai, Chiang Dao and Pai are popular destinations less than four hours from town. There are also plenty of places to explore even closer, like Sri Lanna National Park, heaps of waterfalls and hot springs, temples and more.

Lucky from Elephant Nature Park

And, don’t forget about spending time with the elephants!

Be respectful

You will go a long way if you can learn some basic Thai. Mine isn’t great (read: horrid), but knowing your pleasentries and numbers can help, and shows that you actually are making an effort to assimilate in the country.

It’s also important to know the general rules of the Thai culture. Take your shoes off before entering someone’s home. Don’t touch the head of someone older than you. Don’t point to anything or touch anything with your feet. Don’t walk around in your bikini top, ladies. Gentlemen, don’t take off your shirt and walk through town. Even if it is hot. This isn’t a beach and walking around semi-nude is rude.

Get to know your neighbors

Having both farang and local people in your life is a necessity. Other farang know what you’re going through when you say you just need a hug, or are having a moment. Locals are important, too. They help you create a sense of home, even if you are far away. Find a spot you can frequent, whether it is a coffee shop, restaurant or bar, and get to know the people who run it. Getting yourself a local support system is essential.

If you don’t have to be here in the “summer,” don’t

The “summer” months in Chiang Mai run from around February to the end of April. During this time, it is hotter than Hades. Disgustingly hot. No rain. You sweat as soon as you step out of your (cold) shower. It is also burning season, when visibility can be reduced to right in front of you. The air is thick with smoke and your lungs hurt.

I lasted through the season, but it is because I had to. If you don’t need to be here, skip it. Or power through it and lament over iced-down Leos about how grossly hot it is and how the air smells putrid from the smoke.

But, be here for Songkran

Experience Songkran in Chiang Mai

At least your first Songkran. The largest water fight in the world, Songkran is a time the city comes together with one major purpose: to throw water on each other. It is fun. It brings you back to childhood. I was dreading the festival, but ended up surprising myself and loving it more than I ever thought possible.

Embrace your expat-ness

Being an expat is a blessed opportunity. Not everyone can have this experience — no matter where in the world the experience is. Appreciate everything about this life — the nuances, the troubles, the beauty. You are fortunate to be where you are — never forget that. Love. Laugh. Live.

Have you ever been an expat in Chiang Mai? What have you learned? Share your comments below!

Published by dtravelsround

Awakening the soul while traveling ... a story of being on the cusp of adulthood.

60 thoughts on “Tips on being an expat in Chiang Mai

  1. Wow, fantastic article, so much useful info. I was really considering spending a few months in Chang Mai because it was so cheap (as a travel blogger I’m always looking to stretch my money out as much as possible). Glad to read that really is the truth!

    Thanks for the advice!


  2. Great post with great advice! I also really loved the picture of the moat with the flowers in front. Gorgeous! My wife and I are vegans and we must agree that it is relatively easy to be a vegan here too, with many markets and restaurants willing to accommodate. The only downside is that the street food is rarely vegetarian, let alone vegan. But there is always mango and sticky rice. Can’t get enough!

    Lonely Planets describes Chiang Mai as “the jumping off point to northern Thailand” and it really is. There are great places that are easy to get to from here, like Pai and Chiang Rai. 🙂


    1. Thank you, Ligeia! There is the lady by my house that has veggie food, but she isn’t always there. Which makes me sad because the food is so good!! Love CM!


  3. I couldn’t agree more with this awesome post! Chiang Mai is still one of the highlights of our year’s travel. A gorgeous, friendly place, with great street food, some of the best restaurants, fantastic bar scene, a relaxed vibe… AND a Tesco! Yes there’s too many bugs, but this is SE Asia. The worst thing about Chiang Mai – it’s super hard to get work/a visa; easily the best thing of all – making life-long friendships like you 🙂 x


    1. Thank you!!! It is not easy to get a visa, but there are way, like teaching English. 🙂 And, yes, the friendships and experiences here are amazing. So lucky to have you in my life!


  4. I have thought many times about making the move to Chiang Mai, many of my friends have joined the exodus to Chiang Mai and they have no regrets. Still, here I am in Pattaya, despite it’s bad reputation it has a lot going for it, and just about anything one could ask for. And what would I do with my blog if I moved to Chiang Mai ??.


  5. Just to add to what you were saying about the community spirit Diana, some people feel isolated when they arrive in Chiang Mai. We both use or have used the Smith Residence, as you mentioned people are immediately curious about new arrivals, and that’s a great thing. Everyone is immediately welcomed and the long timers are always keen to give best advice and tips about living and working in Chiang Mai.

    Within a day or two some people will be calling you by name, within a week or two everyone will. Even if you eventually move out, Smiths continues to be welcoming as a social hub. You can’t put a price on that level of assistance gladly given, and companionship happily shared. Anyone thinking about relocating should consider staying at Smiths for a while, you’ll never be isolated here, and that’s a great boost to any new expats who are trying to get their head round this wonderful mixed up city and culture.


    1. So true! Smith was a wonderful place to live and meet people like you! Look at me, I don’t live there anymore and you cannot keep me away. The community there, the friendships I have made, are long-lasting and wonderful. People who come here can also meet others — sans places like ours. There are events regularly, like Couch Surfing meet-ups, art openings, special events and more.


  6. I agree with Ligeia. This’s good post for someone travel to Chiang Mai, Thailand.
    A long story with some good photos. Hope to see more like it 🙂


  7. Wonderful tips! I can’t believe it’s been a year. Great to hear you are loving it. I like the start to this piece a lot. It’s so great to be around an expat crowd – they’re so open and welcoming. Keep living the dream!


  8. Great article. I have not been to Thailand yet but have been curious about it since I started blogging and reading how popular it is. It is amazing how cheap it is to live there. Hopefully soon I will make it over there.


  9. Ah yes, the old “what are you doing here’ question… it’s almost as though people think that you’ve been forced to move there are feel sorry for you. Great read, thanks ever so much!!


  10. you rock!!! i love this blog 🙂

    i spent 2.5 months there and wish i found smith! and these facebook groups. but…. i shall be back 🙂

    thanks for sharing your experiences and awesome perspectives. i agree – living as an expat is such a privilege. being able to be a fly on the wall in another culture, especially one as colorful as chiang mai, makes for a pretty great life.


  11. Hi D,

    Love your sentiments about having friends over 60. As a founding member of the old farts club it was a pleasure to welcome your smiling face into Chiangmai and the hallowed “Louigies ” bar at Smith Residence. Hope you stick around a long time not just for the elephants.


    1. Ha ha, thanks John!! Gary told me last night I was “one of the boys,” which made me smile. 🙂 Thanks for being in my life and looking forward to seeing you soon!! I hope to be here for a long time, too! ❤


  12. Thanks for your post. It really meant a lot to me. Chiang Mai has always held a rather rotten place in my heart since it was where I received the call that my father had died suddenly. We were there for less than 24 hours and had to leave. Sorry for the downer. But now, with your description, I just want to get up and live there :-)! I’ll now always know that it’s an awesome place with lots of wonderful people. So thank you! And what wonderful things you must be doing for the elephants! We adopted two elephants at the Sheldrick Orphanage after we visited there in ’09. Thanks again!


    1. I am so sorry you lost your father when you were in Chiang Mai. I cannot even imagine what that felt like, or how it impacted your views of Chiang Mai. The city really is amazing, and I hope you can make it back. And, awesome that you are helping the elephants!!!


  13. When I think about the amazing food in Thailand, it’s the Chiang Mai sunday market that I miss the most. I don’t care that it was wall-to-wall people. The food was so amazing it was worth being packing in like a sardine! I hear you on always having to say goodbye – I hate that part.

    I freaking KNEW we were getting overcharged for the Songthaews when they wanted 100 to go somewhere. The people I was with were all “no that’s just the price”

    I knew it I knew it I knew it!


  14. Hello D,
    My wife and I are loving this post. It all rings so true for us because we have lived in Chiang Mai as expats for almost 6 months at this point. Love the picture from the top of the Smith Residence. We actually live down 1 km south of it if you take the fork to the left, so it is really cool to see Chiang Mai Gate from that angle.
    Definitely agree with you regarding getting out of Chiang Mai during the hot season if you can. We are thinking of Hua Hin as an option for those smokey Chiang Mai months. We are taking our second trip down there this coming weekend.
    Oh, and the songthaew advice is priceless. I think everyone that moves here initially goes through being ripped off a bit. It is always painfully embarrassing to look back on how much we let ourselves agree to spend on short rides when we first arrived.
    Thanks for the post. We followed you before we quit our jobs in the states and moved to Chiang Mai, and we still enjoy your great posts even after being fully established in our lives here. We plan to live here for a very long time to come!


    1. Oh, thanks so much for the note! How long have you been here? We’re neighbors! We should get together some time!!! I’ve never been to Hua Hin but have heard it is a great escape during the smoke!


      1. Hey D, sorry for the late response. We have been doing a lot of traveling around Thailand recently. We have actually lived in Chiang Mai for just over six months now. We would love to get together and grab a bite to eat or something one day. Always looking to make new expat friends in Chiang Mai! Take care!


  15. You had me at good street food, but I can see that there are some really great reasons for a traveler to want to live there. The thing about bugs in the house still makes me a bit uneasy though. However, I know that opinions change over time and you can become more accustomed to things, even if they are unpleasant.


  16. Loving this!! I had a short trip to Thailand in May, unfortunately we didn’t get to go to Chiang Mai but really wanted to. We stayed at BLES (an elephant sanctuary in Sukhothai) and the owner Katherine was always talking about the place and saying how much she loves it!

    I’m looking at packing up and leaving the UK for Thailand next year. The prospect is SCARY (mainly being alone!) but reading blogs like this is comforting so I will keep reading.



    1. I am always one to encourage packing it up and taking that leap. I think it is so important to live your life and just GO with what your heart wants. It is scary … but I moved out here alone. You can, too! Thanks for the support! ❤


  17. Me again!!

    I just read a bit more of your blog saying what you are doing for the elephants. If you haven’t been to BLES (Boon Lott elephant sanctuary), you need to go! I think Katherine knows the owner of the one in Chiang Mai and I guess their goals are the same. Spending 5 days there in May was life changing. All I can think about is elephants and how heart breaking it is knowing what many other ones are going through. I want to make a difference and help as much as I can which is why I realllly want to come to Thailand.


    1. I haven’t been to BLES but am familiar with it 🙂 I am so glad you were able to go and have that special experience. I wish more people would opt for that or ENP! Come back to Thailand!


  18. Hi Diana
    Thankyou for your blog. My wife and I recently bought a new house a short drive from old city. She has family there and we plan to retire there in about 3 years. I have been there many times but having read a couple of other blogs I was wondering if I could enjoy it 10 months a year. Your appreciation of it is lovely to hear. I plan to learn Thai fulltime when I move there so that should keep me busy too. Ill keep an eye on your posts.


  19. Thanks for the useful info, Diana. I’m from the southern neighbour and am thinking of visiting CM next year or later. I’ve gone on holiday in southern Thailand but not to the north yet.


  20. Wonderful blog, and full of so many of the things we love about our new home.

    I was sent a link to your blog tonight by my cousin in Scotland, and its found its way back to chaing mai.

    We have been here since mid August can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.

    It was such an unexpected pleasure of a place to find, we were actually all set to move to Samui, but it had been a stressful move to organize so we decided to have a family break here for a few days before we headed south, but we never left.

    Made the move from Europe ( for too many reasons to put in a comments box ) and haven’t looked back. We passed the first tests of finding a school and visa runs and are eagerly awaiting our first warm Christmas 🙂
    The first big test is Hubby going back to Europe for work for a few weeks, but in all honesty, we’ve done it for longer and in a lot less pleasant surroundings, so it shouldn’t be too bad.

    Things are just different here, but in such a good way.

    Looking forward to reading more of your pieces, on Chiang Mai in particular.


    1. I’m so glad you found my blog! Chiang Mai really is a perfect little slice of heaven. I have been to Samui and much prefer this paradise in the north. While there are downsides to every city, I find the ups here are definitely worth staying long-term. Christmas-time here is amazing — the temps alone make this month my favorite of the year. Enjoy your time in Chiang Mai, and let me know if you’d ever like to get a coffee!


  21. Hi Diana, there are so many blogs on the net about Chiang Mai and I have been working my way through them. I am moving there in mid March 2015 to retire there. I have just applied for my retirement visa here in Australia and should hopefully have it in the next couple of weeks. I see you are now back in London.

    I was there in early November 2014 and really enjoyed it there and at the time was offered a long term rental by the owner of the guesthouse where I was staying in the Old City (the apartment is only a few doors down in the Chiang Mai Gate area). I am a single retired woman aged 67 and find that I am just marking time since my working life ended. Also it is not easy living on a retirement pension here and I can live much more cheaply in Chiang Mai and also there will be so many interesting things to see and do and interesting people to meet.

    Sometimes I think ‘what am I thinking?!’ but it will all come together once I arrive there on my big adventure. The pros certainly outweigh the cons and I am going there with an open mind and intend to enjoy life. As the saying goes, if you risk nothing, you get nothing – nothing is written in stone so I am going to have a go and see what happens…

    Thanks for a very down to earth article.



    1. Hi Jenny — thank you so much for taking the time to share your story. You lived right near where I lived!! I love that quote — it is perfect and so very true. It definitely is far cheaper to live in Thailand than many other parts of the world (as I write this from the complete opposite place of London). Best of luck in your travels and life in Chiang Mai!


  22. LOVE this helpful post, and appreciate it! We have just arrived and we’re getting our bearings. We committed “mai chai” to memory, and will do our best!


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