22 January 2014


Hint:  It's damn cheap!! ...and awesome!

I've been asked by several of my friends what it's like to live in Chiang Mai as well as what the costs of living are so I'd love to share my experiences with you as well since I find myself answering these questions more and more these days.  Often it's a friend that I've met somewhere along my travels reaching out to me for some advice.  For some, they say that they've quit their dead-end job to pursue their passion more seriously and others are planning on being teachers here in SE Asia.  They hear that Chiang Mai is a great place to get their TEFL/CELTA certification and would like to work here afterwards, or it's just a good and cheap place to live where one can continue their Internet job or just to have a home base while they travel around SE Asia.  So of course, many questions follow after that of what's it like, where should they look, how much is an apartment, how are they going to get around, etc.  Keep in mind that my recommendations are based solely on the fact that I'm a single woman who prefers to live alone, eat out, and generally live on the cheaper (but not cheapest) - not for a family of four or someone who makes a lot more money than I do.  I live off of less than $1,000 a month with the ability to save money too.  As of the date that I'm writing this, $1 American is about 30 baht, so have fun with your conversions!  …Now let's get to it!!

What's it like to live here?  Well, it's awesome.  Chiang Mai is the perfect combination of a small city with big city amenities - malls, movie theaters, large chain stores for supplies and western brands, wifi everywhere, a big live music scene, great restaurants, fantastic festivals, a big expat scene, and night life living right next to rural life about 15 minutes in any direction, mountains hovering over the city, hill tribes, mountain trekking, jungles, farms, rivers, most buildings under 5 stories, almost no chain restaurants/fast food, and a relaxed attitude on life.  The weather is generally lovely with approximately three seasons - hot (and humid) as hell, wet, and nice and cool with temps between 60-97 degrees Fahrenheit.  It's basically a little paradise.  

There's start up costs no matter where you go and luckily here, they're generally pretty cheap.  You're looking at a deposit for a place to rent, appliances/miscellaneous stuff, and a motorbike (buy or rent - more on that later).  All of these things can vary greatly, but I'll give you an example of what I ended up paying for all these things for a realistic picture.

Low 5,000 baht/month.  Low deposit 12,000 baht, plan on 15,000+
Like any city, prices of dwellings vary from neighborhood to neighborhood.  Here, the more expensive places to live are in the old city (inside the moat) and the Neimenhaemin areas.  Furnished studio apartments can start around 4,500 baht per month within town, though average is closer 5,000 on up.  I pay 5,200 baht for my place in the heart of Neimenhaemin plus utilities and wifi (approx. 500-1200 baht/month for utilities and 600 baht/month for wifi).  

Many people opt to live with roommates in 3-4 bedroom townhouses which can vary as well.  A townhouse around Neimen can go for about 18-20,000 baht per month.  Can you find one for less in a different neighborhood?  Yes, you can.

Another thing to look out for, many places will ask for a 6-12 month lease and they give you a better deal the longer you stay over 6 months.  There are several places that do month to month as well which is great for people who aren't sure how long they're planning on staying here or need some flexibility.  For a deposit, plan on 2-3 months of rent up front.

Can you find better deals around town?  Yes, absolutely.  It doesn't hurt to talk to people who have been living here a while to see if they've heard of anything available as places are often passed down from one traveler to another for pretty much the same exact rent as the previous renter.  I've got a friend renting a great place in the old city for about 5,000 baht per month with utilities included and she lives in a nice little studio above a garage with a big balcony area!  How did she hear about it?  From a friend of hers that was moving away.  When she leaves, I want to get in there next!!  The deals are there but they're easier to find once you're here.  I always recommend staying in a guest house for a few weeks while you get your bearings and get to know the different parts of the city, where you ultimately need to be near, and where you want to be.  I chose Neimen because it has several bars and restaurants within a short walking distance, if I have several drinks, I'm close enough to walk home or take a tuk-tuk for cheap, there's two 7-11's and a small Tesco Lotus market nearby, as well as shops, a good little night scene, it's central, and close to the Super Highway making pretty much all of Chiang Mai easily accessible.  

Depends on several factors
It may seem strange that I would write about the miscellaneous costs like appliances and linens.  But the thing is, is that they often are not included in furnished apartments and are definitely a factor financially as many things are not the same costs here as they would be back home.  So this section includes what some of those slightly more expensive miscellaneous costs could be.

Something to consider when selecting a place to live, is that many apartments and studios do not come with a "kitchen" as we are accustomed to in the west with stove, oven, microwave, sink, etc..  My studio did not come with one and most smaller, cheaper apartments don't come with one.  Many Thai people sort of "build" a kitchen on their balconies that include a gas cooking stove along with a sink, that's very normal.  I have a single gas cooking stove that looks a bit like a camping stove that I bought for 300 baht.  That along with a little shelf/table to put it on and I called it a day with my "kitchen".  Sure, it'd be nice to have a microwave (but does a person really need one??  No.) and a toaster oven, even a blender.  And you can buy all those things if you really need to, but I found that I don't need those things.  To build out a kitchen with cheaper appliances (double burner stove, toaster oven, blender) you're looking around  3,500 baht+.  Another note, several places have all the appliances in them too, but you're gonna pay for it one way or another.  Thing is, it's so damn cheap to eat out here and so many foods are ready-made or very fast to make, many people don't cook at home.  So, it's entirely up to you how much you want to spend on cooking equipment.

Linens and such... it's typical that things like sheets and towels aren't provided, but odd thing is, is that decent sheets are quite expensive here.  You'd think that with as cheap as everything is here in Thailand including clothing and even fabric, sheets are not. Most out there are this crappy, itchy, uncomfortable polyester usually with some sort of colorful cartoon on them.  I definitely don't do cartoon or polyester sheets for a place I'm going to live in and I definitely don't do anything but good quality cotton sheets.  So, I splurged on buying a half decent set (fitted sheet and two pillow cases only) of cotton sateen of which I got on sale for 1,700 baht.  But when you go shopping, don't be surprised to find that the costs of nice sheet sets can go up to 9,000 baht.  Yes, $270.  One last thing… most beds in Asia are quite uncomfortable - the ground is softer then many of the beds here.  So, buying a pillow top for your bed is sort of essential if you want to save your back and actually get a good night's rest.  For decent ones, plan on spending 2,500 baht on up.  

Of course there are a million other little things that one has to get for their place to settle in, but whatever it is, it's cheap here and inconsequential for me to talk about.

// FOOD //  
Low 180 baht/day, Mid 400 baht/day, High - sky's the limit!
On that note, food budgets can vary greatly.  Since my income is on the lower side compared to what many Westerners make here, I tend to eat cheap, but I eat cheap and well.  If you need to keep your finances on the more conservative side, you can be like my friend and eat for about 100 baht a day.  She eats breakfast and lunch provided by her school, then has a larger dinner for 100 baht.  Most of my meals can be anywhere from 35 baht for a large bowl of soup with protein, to 100 baht for two salads and a small entree at the local Burmese place and I'm eating like a total boss there.  So I'd average out my daily meals (light breakfast, lunch, and dinner) to 220 baht per day.  Sure, some days are quite a bit more especially when I eat Western food.  With Western food, plan on each dish being about 80 baht for a small sandwich to 250+ baht for an entree, depending on what you're eating and to be honest, how much cheese is on it as that's pretty much the most expensive food item here, along with Australian or American beef.

// DRINKS //
I'm not going to give you a budget on this as it varies too greatly from person to person, but plan on domestic Thai beers running around 40 baht for smalls, 75 baht for large, imported beers around 200 baht, cocktails around 90 baht, and a glass of house (boxed) wine for about 90 baht.  Obviously, drink prices can be a lot more expensive than that, but this can get you started on your booze budget.    

Motorbike rental 2,500 baht/month or buy for 10,000-25,000 baht
There's four ways to get around here, songteaw (a covered red truck that is basically a public bus/taxi), bicycle, motorbike, and car (well, of course your two legs too but that's free).  

First up:  Songteaw's can take you pretty much any where in town for about 20 baht a ride.  Good and cheap, BUT there are some drawbacks.  1. Along the way, the truck will continue to pick other passengers up, sometimes making your ride a lot longer than you were hoping.  2. Often, you end up choking on exhaust fumes from either your songteaw or other vehicles around you.  3. You may have to wait for a few different songteaws to find one that is willing to go in the direction you're headed.  4. It gets stuck in traffic like all the other cars.  However, should you be in a real rush, you can buy out the songteaw from 150 baht on to take you directly to your destination without picking anyone up.

Second:  Bicycles are a fun way to travel and get exercise too.  They can be rented for 50 baht/day or you can purchase a used one for as little as 1,000 baht like I did.  Thing is, when it's the hot and humid summer here, the last thing you'll want to do is do any sort of physical activity that will make you hotter than it already is.  However, if you're willing to deal with it, it's a great low cost way to get around.

Motorbikes in my opinion are the way to get around and that's what most people drive here.  They're quick, they fit in-between small spaces like between cars that are sitting in traffic and you just zip right by them, you can drive them on the sidewalk (bypassing yet again, those pesky cars and buses that are blocking up the entire street), you can do turns that cars can't, you can park pretty much anywhere you want, you can drive the wrong way down the road and no one bats an eye as that's perfectly normal here, they're cheap and pretty much everyone can afford to either rent or buy them.  While technically, you should have an International Drivers license or a Thai driving license, you don't totally need one.  Only time you need it is the off-occasion when you get pulled over by the police because you're not wearing your helmet or some other ridiculous reason when they need to make some cash - most often, local farangs ignore them and keep driving by, and no, the police don't come after you.  Though if you're caught without a license, the fine is pretty small, I'll guess around 400 baht. 

Now for the downsides to motorbikes: you are exposed to all of the weather both cold, hot, or rainy, if you get in an accident, you're gonna get kinda fucked up (the least being some bruises and a bit of road rash, the worse being well, broken limbs or death), you're gonna end up sucking all the crappy exhaust that comes out the cars and buses that are never maintained for smog pollution, and you are the lower end of the totem pole when it comes to who rules the road.  The bigger the vehicle, the more right to the road they have - though there is the unwritten rule of power in numbers.  Pedestrians, you're generally not even a consideration so keep your eyes open even when you're on the sidewalk.  The other expense you have to consider is gas and basic maintenance.  Gas obviously depends on how much driving you do.  To fill up your tank is about 100 baht.  When I worked about 15km away from home, I spent about 300 baht a week with my motorbike that isn't fuel efficient.  Now that I work closer, I spend about 150 baht a week. 

Cars, I have no experiences with cars here as I simply cannot afford one and even if I could, I likely wouldn't have one as it's impossible to park them any where and any commute is significantly longer than a motorbike.  So, no helpful advice in this department.

Low around 500 baht/month
Most people have either an unlocked smart phone or a regular ol' phone that can only do basic texting and calls.  Smart phones are the same prices if not more expensive here than back home, but basic phones can be around 1,500 baht or so.  SIM cards are either free or super cheap.  Phone plans are also super cheap.  You can choose to have a plan that is deducted monthly or top up at 7-11 or other top up machines around town with just about whatever amount you want on there.  A decent smartphone plan for a month is about 500 baht.  If you top up, you can spend less, but essentially you're paying per call (1 baht/min with True), per text (3 baht/ea), or data usage (no idea how much).  Plan on spending 500 baht per month on the safe side if you don't use your cell data too often and use free wifi around town.

Depends on your visa
Ok, we're all here for different reasons and are on different visas.  I can only speak from experience of being on an educational (ED) visa.  I take Thai language classes twice a week for two hours a day and it not only allows me to learn the Thai language but also about the culture - plus, you're able to obtain a 1-year visa.  The costs of the courses vary slightly from school to school but mine was about 26,000 baht.

The other costs that people don't always talk about are the visa runs and the residency check-ins with immigration.  The average visa run to Vientiane from Chiang Mai can be about $200 with buses, different visas, to get in and out of Laos, the actual ED visa costs, a place to stay, food, etc.  Plan on 3-days to do a visa run.  Immigration check-ins are 1,900 baht every other month.

If you're just chilling out here in Chiang Mai and don't want to do language courses, you can opt to do border runs every 30-days.  It takes the better part of the day to take a bus there and back along with the typical BS that you have to deal with but it is significantly cheaper and faster than going to Vientiane.  However, it can be a pain in the ass to do this every month.

My friend Daytona brought up an interesting fact, if you absolutely must move away from this little paradise, you can sell most of your stuff online through various Facebook groups for nearly the same or just a little less than you originally bought it for.  Things like motorbikes, linens, yoga mats, dishes, etc.  Usable goods in good condition tend to hold their resale value.  I've personally sold a few items on Facebook group like 'Secondhand Chiang Mai', 'Chiang Mai Buy, Sell, Swap', and such and it was rather easy.  Post a picture, how much it is, and any other instructions and it pretty much goes from there.  

So now that you know your general costs, you can make a more educated decision as to whether you'd like to live here in Chiang Mai.  This city has one of the highest number of expats for a number of reasons - low costs of living, quality of life, natural beauty, good culture, a high turnover in teaching jobs, several beautiful places to travel to in northern Thailand, and the Thai people are  so lovely.  There really isn't anything that's missing here if you're looking for the near perfect place to live in SE Asia.  

If you have any questions, feel free to email me and I'd be happy to help!

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At April 8, 2015 at 12:56 PM , Blogger James Schipper said...

Sounds like a great place to live! ;-)


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