What Living as an Expat in Chiang Mai, Thailand is Really Like

What living in Chiang Mai as an expat
What living in Chiang Mai as an expat

Hey guys! Welcome to Living Abroad, a series that shows you what expat life is like in cities around the world. Our latest interview is with Alana, an American entrepreneur, writer, and blogger who has spent the last nine years living in Chiang Mai. Here, she shares what it’s really like to live in Chiang Mai as an expat, from the incredible food to the transient expat community.

I’ve read Alana’s blog, Paper Planes, since like 2013 so I’m really excited to share this interview!

Quick facts about living in Chiang Mai, Thailand:

  • Language: Thai
  • Currency: ฿ Thai Baht (THB)
  • Level of crime in Chiang Mai: Very low
  • Cost of living in Chiang Mai: Low
  • Quality of life in Chiang Mai: High

The pros and cons of living in Chiang Mai (as reported by Alana):

  • Pros: The cost of living compared to the value you get is incredible, it’s big enough to have everything you need but small enough that you can get around easily and everyone seems to know each other, and, of course, delicious, affordable food!
  • Cons: Options for foreigners living long-term in Thailand are very limited especially when it comes to legally working and every year there is a “smoky season” where the surrounding fields and forests are burned for agricultural purposes. Sometimes it can feel like a really small bubble but that just means it’s time to take a short trip or see and do something new then come back with fresh eyes. 
What living in Chiang Mai as an expat

On Alana’s background:

Originally from Seattle, I’ve called Chiang Mai home for almost nine years. When I first came over, I thought I’d be here for 6-8 months but just continued feeling like it was the right place for me so I didn’t leave! (You’ll often hear a similar story from other expats in Thailand…) Now I run a business providing copywriting and content creation services primarily to Thai companies in the travel and hospitality industries. My clients plus some travel writing on the side have allowed me to experience more of the country and culture than I could have ever imagined – there are so many beautiful places to discover. I’m forever grateful that I’ve been able to build up a close network of both friends and clients across the country.

Sometimes people in Bangkok or who are coming from larger cities are surprised to hear I’ve been in Chiang Mai so long but I’m fortunate to work whenever my computer is and take advantage of the lifestyle and slower pace here. I rent a quirky two-story house in the center of town where I live with my dog and zip around on my motorbike… things I certainly could not if I were in Bangkok!

What living in Chiang Mai as an expat
What living in Chiang Mai as an expat

On the cost of living in Chiang Mai: Chiang Mai is incredibly affordable – it’s one of the cheapest places to live in the country yet offers a high-quality life and wide range of accommodations, goods, and services. Living here really spoils you! On the flip side, however, there are many things here that are surprisingly expensive, especially compared to typical monthly salaries or accommodation rentals. Imported food goods are priced higher than what you would find in the US. Also, some seeming random items – like bedsheets – are more expensive and lower quality than what I would pay in the States. 

On finding an apartment in Chiang Mai: Chiang Mai has a ton of accommodation options ranging from super cheap and basic (one room with a bed) to newly-built multi-bedroom houses. There are some real estate rental websites but I think it’s best to start looking for a long-term place once you’re in town or join Chiang Mai rental Facebook Groups and keep an eye on listings. Prices are all over the places but you can find something simple and comfortable starting from around $100 a month. 

What living in Chiang Mai as an expat

On the best neighborhoods in Chiang Mai for expats: The Nimmanhaemin neighborhood is often the go-to area for people just coming here, especially in the digital nomad crowd. It’s considered as Chiang Mai’s “trendy” neighborhood and is close to the large Chiang Mai University, a ton of cafes, restaurants, bars and shopping malls. 

On safety: Of course, bad things happen here like everywhere else but generally speaking, Chiang Mai is very safe. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve left my keys in my motorbike ignition while it’s parked on the street and come back to find them still there. I also feel completely safe traveling on my own or walking at night. 

What living in Chiang Mai as an expat
What living in Chiang Mai as an expat

On being a foreigner in Thailand: To be honest, foreigners in Thailand are often immediately categorized into broad “other” groups. I’m always recognized as a “farang” (Western foreigner) but it doesn’t matter that I’m American. Whether you’re from the United States, Australia, Spain, Russia or South Africa…you’re just seen as a farang

On how to live in Chiang Mai as an American: Thailand has very strict regulations about foreigners staying in the country long-term, especially when it comes to working. Many people who are here long-term are on retirement visas while teaching English as a foreign language is by far the primary job opportunity for foreigners from English-speaking countries.

On the food: There are a lot of fresh markets and street stalls serving up local Thai food throughout the day starting around $1 per plate. There is also a wide range of basic restaurants – both local and geared toward visitors – as well as some nicer, high-end restaurants for special outings. Whatever cuisine or eating style you prefer, most people eat out way more often than cooking in because of the accessibility and affordability. There is food everywhere.   

What living in Chiang Mai as an expat

On Chiang Miai’s coffee culture: Chiang Mai’s cafe scene is out of control – there are literally hundreds of cafes right in the center of town with most serving locally-grown Thai beans and Instagram-worthy settings.

What living in Chiang Mai as an expat
What living in Chiang Mai as an expat

On learning Thai: It’s hard to learn Thai but not impossible. It really depends on how committed you are and how much exposure you have using Thai on a daily basis. You don’t need to speak Thai to get by and, honestly, most foreigners living here don’t know much beyond a handful of basic phrases or dishes. I’ve taken private lessons off and on over the years, have a solid foundational understanding of the language and can read Thai but am nowhere near as fluent as I feel I should be, which is frustrating. 

RELATED POST: 10 Tips for Becoming Fluent in a Second (or Third!) Language

On the Chiang Mai expat community: Though one of Thailand’s largest cities after Bangkok, Chiang Mai is really quite small. I don’t consider it to be a city…more of a full town. There are so many people from all over the world constantly passing through here, staying for a couple of months or trying to make Chiang Mai a seasonal or permanent base that’s it’s impossible not to meet people…it’s pretty obvious if you’re not a local and people often strike up conversations in restaurants, bars, yoga classes or just walking down the street. Chiang Mai events and happenings can all be found on Facebook and there are a ton of different highly active Facebook Groups to join and connect with your tribe. 

What living in Chiang Mai as an expat

On making friends in Chiang Mai: When I first moved here, I taught English for a year and started meeting people through my TEFL course and work. I felt like I had made many acquaintances in my first year but not a lot of strong connections. All it takes is finding one or two people who you really connect with, however, and your social circle will quickly grow as you meet their friends and soon realize everyone is connected somehow. Now my closest friends are people that I met back in my first couple of years of living here.

RELATED POST: How to Make Friends When You Move to a New City

On the best parts of living in Chiang Mai: The sense of openness, connection, and personal opportunity to explore what interests you. This is true for both Thais and foreigners. There is a significant artisan community here thanks to the cost of living, “slow living” mindset, and close community feel. Everyone I know here seems to have a good work-life balance and prioritizes pursuing their passions or hobbies.  

What living in Chiang Mai as an expat

On the worst part of living in Chiang Mai: Even though there is a large expat community, it is very transient and saying good-bye to friends over the years never gets easier. It actually feels more disheartening the more you do it. The burning/smoky season every year around February-April has also gotten longer and worse over the years to the point that many people who have chosen to call Chiang Mai home are questioning if it’s time to go. It’s really frustrating and depressing to see such a beautiful place become unhealthy to live in.

On living in Chiang Mai long-term: I’ve been living in Chiang Mai for almost nine years…so pretty long-term! That said, there’s always a sense that living here is ultimately temporary.

What living in Chiang Mai as an expat

Thanks so much, Alana!


Other posts about living abroad in Asia:

What living as an Expat in Singapore Is Really Like

What living as an Expat in Japan Is Really Like

What living as an Expat in Shanghai Is Really Like

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About Ashley Fleckenstein

Ashley is a travel and lifestyle blogger who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Since college she has au paired in Paris, backpacked the world solo, and lived in Uganda. Her work has been featured by Buzzfeed, Forbes, TripAdvisor, and Glamour Magazine.

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