Chiang Mai: A Budget Friendly Dream Come True

Thriving on a Budget

Moving to Chiang Mai was such a life changing decision for both us in the best way possible. No matter where you choose to live inside of the city, it’s so easy to show up, find an apartment, and just start living. That’s the beauty of Chiang Mai. It’s perfect if you’ve never lived in Asia before because of the high English usage. There are so many blog posts that cover living in Chiang Mai, but we want to focus on you arriving and thriving as quickly as possible. Staying on budget is a breeze if you earn in Canadian $Dollar, and while some blogs may claim you can live “like a king” on only $500USD, we found that we lived extremely comfortably at $1500CAD as a couple. That’s a far cry from Toronto cost of living!

Our Chiang Mai Story Overview

We arrived at Chiang Mai International Airport after a 12 hour flight out of London and we were so exhausted that we barely knew what we were doing. We showed our taxi driver the hotel location, and for less than $7CAD he dropped us off in the Nimmanhaemin/Nimman neighbourhood. We stayed at the Bliss Hotel for the first week. Carolina experienced culture shock for the first time and could barely leave the hotel room for 3 days! Luckily it was so close to a 7/11, a night market, and MAYA lifestyle mall that it definitely drew her out of the room.

While Carolina was culture shocked, Jonathan found 3 apartments he liked just by literally walking around nearby neighbourhoods and booking appointments with reception staff who would refer us to agents. He would see an apartment building he liked, and would start the conversation with the front desk. From the 3 choices, we chose a 1 bedroom apartment at the Unique@Nimman right off of Nimmanhaemin Rd. For the next 5 months our place right off Nimman was our refuge from the heat, our 24-hour office space, and it was so close to everything on Nimman, as well as  access to songthaews (red trucks) or tuk tuk and be anywhere within the city within 10-15 minutes.

Not only did we have access to hip cafes and restaurants, but we were within walking distance of several malls, night markets, shops, co-working spaces, and grocery stores. Data plans were hooked up within 20 minutes. We were able to get high speed internet to our apartment the week after we arrived and that was it – that easy. No work stoppages, no hesitation, no wonder so many other digital nomads choose Chiang Mai as their base.

Read below for more specific information about living and thriving in Chiang Mai!

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Cost of Living Overview

At a very high level, Chiang Mai is a very affordable city if you’re earning anywhere from $1200-2500 CAD/month.  Our focus for this article is getting to Chiang Mai and thriving on what would be typical salary in Ontario, Canada.

Let’s look at a snapshot of our spending during the 5 months we lived in Chiang Mai

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February 2016 snapshot – Most expensive day: $136.32CAD

All of these costs reflect 2 people enjoying themselves at the time. Considering that, $500CAD/person per month on quality food is very possible. These food costs reflect both groceries and eating out. The above chart does not include our rent payments which were ฿23,000 or $900CAD/month. Rent prices can vary greatly in Chiang Mai based on your budget.

Languages – You don’t need to learn Thai

You’ll find that English is widely spoken by locals as its widely taught in local schools as part of their curriculum. Chiang Mai, and the Thailand GDP in general, depends on international tourism, with business owners from around the world all using English as an intermediary. Anyone that is generally older may be less likely to speak english, but interaction wont be impossible. Don’t forget to install the Google Translate app in your smartphone!

There is a Language Visa for 1 year. This is recommended if you’re planning on moving permanently. If you only plan to stay in the Land of Smiles for less than one year, use your time wisely.

Hotels for Your Arrival – The Bliss Hotel

There are many hostels, boutique hotels and luxury resorts available within a short drive from the airport on your arrival, and the last thing you want to do is scramble to find a place to stash your bag or get some shut eye while you’re jet lagged. We’ve been to each of these hotels, whether we stayed there, have visited friends there, or have had great times there.

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  1. Chiang Mai Lodge – In the super convenient Santitham neighbourhood, rooms at the Lodge can be around $19CAD/night. Steps to convenience stores and ATMs, great restaurants and shopping malls.
  2. The Bliss Hotel – Typically around $30CAD/night, not only is it deeply affordable by Toronto standards, but it’s also very comfortable, clean, and close to shopping, apartment buildings, restaurants, and more. We stayed at this hotel for our first week.
  3. Sanae Hotel – We stayed at the Sanae Hotel for our final days in Chiang Mai when it had just opened. It was extremely comfortable and we stayed for about $30CAD/night.  This hotel just down the street from our home at the Unique @Nimman.
  4. Le Mèridien Chiang Mai –  In the heart of the Night Bazaar, and  within walking distance of the Tha Pae Gate, Le Mèridien hotels offer affordable luxury with all creature comforts. We had an amazing meal and New Years celebration there.

Cell Phone Data – AIS

You can get signed up at MAYA mall. There are many different options for cell phone data service, but the phone plan that’ll get you uploading selfies on a weekend trip to Koh Lanta is AIS. You have the option to buy a traveller’s SIM card, however, if you choose to spend more than 6 months in Thailand it’s worth your time to get a postpaid plan. In order for you to get any telecomm services as a non-resident foreigner, you must provide your passport for identification purposes.

High Speed Home Internet Provider – SiNet

You can get signed up at MAYA mall. We went with SiNet as they had an easy set up for us as foreigners. We were able to sign up for fiber internet service for an extremely affordable price. It definitely made online gaming at home, as well as downloading and uploading massive project files way more easier!

Places to Live and Real Estate Agencies

Here’s a few different places that we’ve personally checked out that are really easy to get your life started in Chiang Mai:

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  1. Baan Thai – This is one of THE most affordable options right off of Nimman rd. At about $150CAD this full service, monthly residence is a very basic, but comfortable option.
  2. Chiang Mai Lodge – Not only can you stay there short term, but you can also rent rooms on a monthly basis for roughly the same amount of money. Santitham is another neighbourhood that has a lot to offer at great prices.
  3. The Unique @ Nimman – This is where we lived for nearly 6 months. We found this place by walking up to it, and asking the front desk if they had any rental openings, and at that time they did! The building got us in contact with the rental agent, and then we filled out the paperwork and pay the deposit. We payed $900CAD/ or ฿23,000 baht/month. We also had to pay of our electricity use, but even with that, our cost of living compared to Toronto for a large unit with a pool, gym, steam room and 24 hour security. It is directly across the street from the Nimman Mai Design Hotel.
  4. The Dome Chiang Mai Residences – These serviced apartments are further away from Nimman rd. but they’re very affordable and comfortable as well. The Dome is somewhat between Nimman and Santitham neighbourhoods.

There are many different neighbourhoods throughout Chiang Mai that you may want to explore, and see if it fits your lifestyle. We have personally vetted Nimman and Santitham and can vouch for it. If you want to browse rentals throughout Chiang Mai you can check PerfectHomes.co.th and if you want to start off with an agency check out Chiang Mai Buddy, they’ll help you with visa runs, and other services in English.

Shopping and Groceries

There are so many options in Chiang Mai for buying your groceries and buying other necessities. From your Mom & Pop shops in your neighbourhood market, or going to a hypermarket or a massive mall, you can find everything you need here.

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  1. Maya Lifestyle Mall – A large international style mall. It was one of my favourite places to shop because it was so convenient. A beautifully shiny place with air conditioner with one of the best coworking spaces and theater experiences ever. If you’re an AIS user you can use C.A.M.Ps super fast wifi for free, otherwise you have to purchase food for wifi tickets. The movie theater at Maya has an amazing VIP experience for only $15CAD!  There’s two food courts, the basement food court has tasty affordable food stall options, and the above floors have stand alone restaurants that range from foreign fast food to expensive sushi places.
  2. Rimping Grocery Store – In the basement level of the Maya mall lies Rimping, a supermarket stocked with an amazing wine rack, groceries and bakery.
  3. Kad Suan Kaew – Also known as KSK, near the Santitham neighbourhood, it’s an older style mall – think 1980s style Galleria Mall in Toronto. It’s got a grocery store, affordable food court, and has different stores than Maya.
  4. Central Festival Mall – If you want a bigger, fancier mall experience to get your ZARA fix, Central Festival is the spot. From the Nimman neighbourhood you can catch a songthaew/red truck and you’ll be there in about 10 minutes.
  5. Promenada Resort Mall – Another large luxury style mall that is also home to immigration. Not only will you be visiting to make sure your visa extensions are cleared, but it’s also the home to one of the best electronics store we’ve ever been to – Chi Chang. Outfit your office with literally everything you could ever need.
  6. Big C – There’s a couple of different versions of this Thai supermarket, but Big C is definitely the largest, and most popular Thai supermarket. There’s several stores throughout Chiang Mai, and they also provide home delivery.
  7. Tesco Lotus Express – Just like Big C, this international supermarket chain is available throughout the city, and there’s an Express right in Nimman.

Co-Working Spaces

Co-working spaces are an awesome way to get focused, out of the house, and setting up a healthy work routine. You can meet others during off hours who are also work-focused and some spaces also do group events. They’re great little communities to check out and see if co-working is for you. There are so many options throughout Chiang Mai, but these are the ones we’ve personally visited.

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  1. C.A.M.P – Our favourite space to get out of the apartment because it was very close to our apartment, and the vibe was just so chill and library-like. There’s a large mix of students from the local university, as well as studious little kids, and of course, remote workers from all walks of life. If you have an AIS phone plan you can use their wifi service for free, otherwise you’ll have to buy tasty cafe food which gives you wifi-tickets.
  2. Punspace – One of the most popular co-working spaces in Chiang Mai with two locations. They offer monthly pricing, private offices, call rooms, and more.
  3. Addicted to Work – This is one of the smaller spaces we’ve been to, but it also offers daily, weekly and monthly rates. It has a really hip vibe and there was just something about the name that drew us in.

Co-working spaces are a great option, though if you find that you prefer to work from home because of your work hours, don’t feel alone in that! Jonathan and I learned in Chiang Mai that we prefer to maintain a home office since at that time we worked nights to keep up with EST time zone. Additionally, sometimes you just don’t want to put on pants while working – who are we to judge?

Our Favourite Restaurants, and Cafes

We could write a book about the cafes in Chiang Mai alone. Thais really, really know how to do coffee/cafe culture right. However, since this is just an overview to get you thriving in Chiang Mai as quickly as possible, we’ll just include some of our absolute favourites.

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  1. Ristr8to – Speciality Coffee – There are two locations to this unbelievably incredible cafe. We went to the location on Nimman literally every day. Yes, we got a shot with the staff on our last day in Chiang Mai. We loved it that much. One of the main reasons we want to return to Chiang Mai is specifically for this cafe.
  2. Why Not? Italian – A very tasty Italian restaurant. Pizzas, pasta dishes and a very nice wine collection.
  3. Smoothy Blues – Our nearly daily breakfast spot. Very affordable, super cute atmosphere, and very decent Western breakfast. The smoothies are next level.
  4. Larder Cafe – Another of our favourite breakfast spots with solid coffee. Great atmosphere, it also helped that it was on our street.

Burning Season Warning

A very important consideration when choosing to live in Chiang Mai for an extended period of time is Burning Season. Chiang Mai is a city that is in a valley, surrounded by farms in the highlands. Every year, “officially” starting in April these farms set controlled fires to their land/crops. As a result, the ash, and particulate matter settles down over the city. If you have a history of respiratory sensitivity it’s recommended that you leave the city for that period of time. Be sure to have your plans ready for early March. We left Chiang Mai mid-march and we were both really feeling the burn in our throats and eyes.

Wrap Up

Chiang Mai is an incredible city with so much to offer. It offers a genuinely relaxed pace of life but don’t let that fool you – you can have some of the best Thai meals of your life, have some of the best coffee you’ve ever had, and explore exciting mountain sport activities and stunning cultural landmarks. There’s a thriving international expat scene from all over the world. Making friends is easy in Chiang Mai, and the locals are incredibly kind too. It might seem cliche at this point, but this city is just so easy to live in, it’s no wonder it’s becoming a digital nomad hotspot.

Have you been to Chiang Mai? Is there anything you think we should add to our article that would make travel with your partner even more amazing? Write us a comments below and let us know. We’d love to hear about your experiences about travelling together with your partner.

Stay inspired out there!

– Carolina & Jonathan

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