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