Today is Sunday, July 13, 2014. Two years ago today, I changed my life. I hopped on a Trans-Pacific flight to Chiang Mai, the second largest city in Thailand, to begin anew. To work with my hero, Lek Chailert, and help raise awareness about responsible elephant tourism with Save Elephant Foundation.

Lek Chailert and elephants

A lot can happen in two years. And, there are plenty of lessons I’ve learned as those 24 months have come and gone and left me, standing here, marveling at how quickly time passes. At how much life morphs and grows and condenses and grows again. It’s been two years of ups, two years of downs, and two years of sheer beauty in a place that draws awe from those who come in contact with it.

Life as an expat in Chiang Mai is not always easy. I’d be lying if I said there weren’t times where I have come home, crawled into bed and had a good cry. I’d be lying if I said there aren’t struggles. Living in a foreign country and not speaking the language (although I can get by), not having my own transportation, not knowing anyone when I arrived, definitely has its challenges.

In the two years here, I have made some of the best friends in the world. Friends who don’t even live here anymore, but friends who came into my life and never left. Thanks to the internet, its easy to stay connected. And, regardless of distance, these friends have a hold of my heart. But those friendships have also proved some of the most challenging times for me here, because when these friends left, my life changed. It’s a roller coaster of relationships here. Being a city where people come and go so quickly, the revolving door of people I love, well, revolves. And, waking up to a city where just yesterday there was a support group to a morning when there isn’t one is incredibly difficult. But, it also forces me to meet other people. To get to know myself better, so that’s ok.

I get a lot of questions about life as an expat, so if you have questions about what it is like living in Chiang Mai, please feel free to leave it in the comments. I will be putting together a post later to answer your questions.

Today, to celebrate my two-year anniversary, I want to share what it is I am grateful for. The things that chase away the expat funk and take me back to this beautiful world. What it is about this city, this life, that makes it just so damn amazing.  And perhaps to inspire you to head to Chiang Mai (or tour through Thailand in general), if for nothing else, than at least a visit and a fruit shake with me!

1. I live in a city surrounded by a moat

On days when I start to feel down, the solution (aside from going home and having the pity party, which doesn’t make me feel better and almost always results in pathetic e-mails to my mom) is to go put on some shoes and walk the three minutes to the moat. There is nothing like putting my life here in perspective than just standing, walking around this ancient moat.

2. My neighborhood is like “Cheers” but with more people

Sometimes, I yearn for privacy. To walk down the street and not know anyone. But, as I have mentioned before, the expats here — love them or not — are a family. At least in my neck of the woods. We all look out for each other. We all care about each other. There is something so heartwarming about walking down the street (even on days when I feel antisocial) and having people wave and smile and ask how you are doing, and mean it. On my worst days, I have people here who will stop, make sure I am ok, and then make sure again. Just because. We’re all in this together.

3. A bottle of water is around 20 cents

For 14 baht, I can get a liter of water. It is always one of the top reasons I give for never being able to go and live in America again. I can’t fathom spending more than that.

4. Elephants

Life with elephants is something I wish every person could experience at least once. I learn so much from them. To be at Elephant Nature Park regularly, to sit and watch these creatures whose lives used to be horrific, and see them now, happy, is one of the most beautiful and moving things in the world. The fact that I can go there and be with them, observe them, love them, is one of the most healing things for the soul.

5. Dogs

My office is home to about 10 dogs. The park is home to about 500 (note: if you’d love dogs, Elephant Nature Park Dogs is always in need of volunteers). Like with the elephants, being around these pups just makes any day better. When I go and visit ENP, I always head to the dog runs and spend time in one of the runs with my favorite pups, including Moshe, a one-eyed boy from the Bangkok floods.

6. Cats

I first met Mr. Lucky on my third day as an expat in Thailand. This tiny kitten, dying on the street, stole my heart. Today, he and I have a lovely little partnership. He moved in with me a little more than a year ago, and there are nights when he and I just sit together, cuddling, grateful for each other. At least that is my human emotions projected onto him have decided. With him and my other girl, Penelope, we’ve got this adorable little family.

7. Jungle beauty

I cannot escape the tropics here. The jungle and all of its beauty is around me, always. While the palm trees are reminiscent of my Vegas life, that’s it. The flora, the fauna, the humidity, quickly move me and remind me where I am and why I am here. I love the days when I am walking somewhere and the scent of flowers wraps around me. And don’t even get me started on the massive, beautiful trees. The roots, the intertwining of the body, wrapping itself around each other … breathtaking stuff, I tell ya.

8. Mountains

Geography, in general, is sexy, and I cannot get enough of natural beauty. The mountains here — so long as it is not burning season when they are cloaked by a yellow-gray haze — are stunning. Crisp and green during rainy season, thick clouds hanging over them as monsoons roll into town. Love.

9. Proximity to the airport, and then BKK isn’t so far away either

I could walk to the airport if I wanted to. Seriously. It is that close. With killer deals to other parts of SE Asia and beyond, thanks to budget airlines like Air Asia and Nok Air, it makes impromptu trips a breeze. Plus, Bangkok is a quick hour flight so when the need for hustle and bustle strikes (which is rare for me since I love my laid-back city so much more than the crowded capital), it can be arranged.

10. The constant flowing in of friends

I don’t like the exit of friends, but it is pretty safe to say that when someone leaves, a new person comes in. Or an old person comes back. The revolving door of Chiang Mai expats constantly keeps me on my toes, albeit the “see you soon’s” definitely get old.

11. The creative atmosphere here, thanks to the abundance of digital nomads

There is nothing I love more than calling up my friends and having weekend work parties at coffee shops. There is a huge digital nomad scene in Chiang Mai and a large support system which has been created to encourage meetings, mingles and more.

12. I can walk anywhere I want to go

Up until a few days ago, this was a major plus for me. Then, I totally bit it and totally hurt my tender ligaments in my ankle. When the doctor told me to stay off my foot and not walk for a few weeks, I burst into tears. Chiang Mai is incredibly walkable and there is nothing I love more than just putting on my sneakers, popping in my headphones and wandering. So, while I normally can walk anywhere, right now, I cannot. But, once my ankle is healed, it is Game On.

13. The gym is cheap

Generally, the cost of living in Chiang Mai is far lower than the western world. For a one-year gym membership, I am set back 9,500 baht. My personal trainer costs around 600 baht a session. Sure, the equipment isn’t always the best, but I get to work out for cheap, have a trainer and get into some great shape for far less than I would back in America.

14. Food is cheap

30 baht noodle soup. Sushi dinners for under 500 baht. Fruit shakes for 20 baht. I can eat well (and deliciously) and not have it break the bank. A definite bonus when trying to save up those pennies.

15. Rainy season

Coming from the desert, where I only get to enjoy rain a few days out of the year to Chiang Mai, where there is an entire season, scared me at first. I didn’t know how I was going to react to clouds and rain and wet. But, I love it. Absolutely love it. Those humid, sticky days that turn to thick evenings that lead to gorgeous thunderstorms that shake my little teak house just make me feel alive. Rainy season is, by far, my favorite time of year.

16. Winter season

There is a tiny part of the year where the temperatures drop and layers are needed. In my old world, that would be called Autumn. But here, it is winter. And, thanks to that thin jungle blood, those autumn temperatures render me freezing and elated to don hats and gloves. Even if it is only for a few weeks. The air is crisp, the days are short, and I just want to watch a football game and drink a Bloody Mary. I don’t. But, still … winter in Chiang Mai is just bliss.

17. Health care

The stupid ankle injury last week required me to report to the hospital to get an X-ray. So, off I went to the western hospital in town, Chiang Mai Ram. I was quickly placed through triage, met with a doctor, X-rayed, then met with the doctor again to find out what was wrong. After that, I was brought to the cashier, then the pharmacy to get my medicine. The entire visit cost me 1,400 baht. I was in an out in one hour. Last year, I had to get a medical check-up for my work permit. A full work up of my blood and a doctor visit cost me under 3,000 baht. I went to the dentist for a deep cleaning. The cost? 1,500 baht. It boggles my mind how inexpensive medical visits are here. Although, I should mention when the doctor told me I could get an air cast for my ankle if I wanted to, he also said the cost was pretty ridiculous: 15,000 baht. Of course, I passed.

18. Massages

Every street has a massage shop. I’ve found my favorites in town (and will be telling you all about them) and try to make it in for a head/neck/back/shoulder/arm massage at least once a week. For 200 baht for 60 minutes, I really should be going more.

19. Incense

I know this is kind of weird to put on my list, but I love how Nag Champa floats through the air in the mornings when everyone makes their offers to their spirit houses. It reminds me I am in Thailand, in another world.

20. Culture

The wats. The holidays. The monks. The smiles. All around me, the beautiful Thai culture thumps and pulses. It is intoxicating and inspiring and unlike anything I have ever experienced in my old life.

48 comments

  1. Lovely post, Diana! We’ll be in Thailand in a few months and are definitely planning to visit Chiang Mai this time around. Looks fab.

    Oh and the smell of incense is something I miss when I’m not in SE Asia. It makes everything seem, dare I say it, magical.

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    1. The smell of incense is actually what inspired me to put the list together. I love walking in the morning and just having those lovely fragrances drift up to my head. Let me know when you get to CM!

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    1. You’re so welcome! I am not a digital nomad, though. I have a volunteer visa with Save Elephant Foundation and do their PR and social media. Regardless, life here is wonderful!! Come and be my neighbor!

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  2. Every time somebody writes about their fantastic life in Chiang Mai, I’m tempted to drop everything and just move there.

    I know the recent changes to Thailand’s visa laws have made it hard, but I’d sorely like to come do the digital nomad thing there someday. Thanks for reminding me how awesome the city is!

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    1. I’m a big advocate of just going!! There have been changes, but if you want to learn the language, you can get an education visa. So, learn Thai and get to live here! I think it is a win-win. I wish I had the time to learn to read and write and speak Thai!

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    1. Chiang Mai is a great place for digital nomads, although now the visa situation is a lot more difficult than it used to be. CM is not near the ocean, it is in the mountains of northern Thailand. While I don’t dive, I can happily tell you that there are plenty of budget flights down south to the beaches and islands. You’re looking at either stopovers in Bangkok and then flights/ferries to the islands, or direct flights from here that take about two/three hours.

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  3. Beautiful post!! I feel like I am there, after reading through this list. All such awesome things. Makes me want to hop on a plane now! See you there in Oct 2015….. : )

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  4. Just wanted to say that I absolutely love this line: “Geography, in general, is sexy”! Agreed! You’ve put Chiang Mai even higher on my list of places to visit in my lifetime with this post. Cheers!

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  5. I was recently in Thailand from February to April and it was amazing. While I was there I fell in love with Chiang Mai and ended up falling in love with the elephant nature park after a day visit. It makes me happy to see them taking care of the elephants and allowing others to contribute by feeding and bathing. I was curious, how did you manage to get a job there?

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    1. I’m so glad you fell in love with ENP!! I volunteer with the park long term. I was offered a position after I volunteered there, worked with Lek when I was back in the States and decided I wanted to go back to live in Thailand and do what I could for PR and social media. There was a position open at the time. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time, for the right thing.

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  6. Love love love this. I am focusing all my efforts to relocate to SE Asia with this city specifically in mind. Just read through a lot of your site, and I so identify with you! Bookmarking this post for daily motivation.

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    1. Awww! Re-entry is NEVER easy, particularly from SE Asia back to the States. I can only last in the US for a few weeks before I crave cheap and chill!

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  7. I love your list. I recently went to Thailand and spent four days in Chiang Mai; one of those days was at Elephant Nature Park. Chiang Mai made me slowly, but definitively, fall in love. It’s the one place in Thailand I’d love to get back to. If you’re interested in my experience, you can see my blog write up too http://thoughttoilet.wordpress.com/2014/07/17/two-week-affair-part-2-chiang-mai/

    All in all, I’ve never left a place I’ve visited with such a heavy heart. I’m in the U.S so I don’t know when I’ll be able to get back since the airfare is so expensive.

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    1. Hi Garvin, thanks so much for sharing your post! Chiang Mai really is a magical city, eh? And, ENP absolutely has my heart. It is the reason I moved here! I know what you mean about the cost — it is prohibitive to travel from US to Thailand. Makes it really hard to come back and visit friends and family! I hope you can make it back here sometime soon!

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  8. I’m travelling to Thailand this Autumn and I hadn’t found a more lovely post about it than yours! I’m seeking some info cause I’m not familiar with Thai culture, but now I’m sure I’ll find as much peace as you’re describing here.

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  9. Hi Diana! I am so excited I stumbled upon your blog as I am becoming a digital nomad myself. I will be going to Thailand – Chiang Mai specifically in January for a few months. I hope to run into you and maybe we can grab a (very cheap) beer.

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  10. I looked up the cost of round-trips from Lisbon to Chiang Mai before I had even gotten halfway through your post! That’s how convincing it was!
    I didn’t even read points 15 and 16. Completely extraneous 😉 In fact, point 14 would have been enough to convince me hehe

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  11. Hi diana
    Have been to chiangmai three times and met met some beautiful people now as im retireing i will see how i will go lliving there in two months time it would be niceto have a chin wag over a cup of coffee if you up to it
    Cheers phillip

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