Bangkok vs Chiang Mai: Which is Better For Expats and Nomads?

I’ve lived six months in Bangkok and two months in Chiang Mai as a digital nomad. I’ve also stayed in 15 other cities in Asia. Today I want to discuss how Bangkok and Chiang Mai compare and contrast, from my perspective.

Keep in mind: I’m a single male American digital nomad in his 30s. I don’t speak much Thai. I like big cities. I don’t drink alcohol, and I try to live a healthy lifestyle. All of this affects how I view both Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

Overview: Living in Bangkok vs Chiang Mai

Bangkok and Chiang Mai are very different kinds of places. Sometimes called “the Big Mango,” Bangkok is a much bigger city than Chiang Mai. And it especially has a much bigger feel to it.

Personally, when comparing the two cities, I found these benefits of living in Bangkok:

  1. Big City Energy and Skyline Views
  2. More Endless Restaurants and Shopping Options
  3. Better Air Quality in “Burning Season”

Meanwhile, I found these benefits of living in Chiang Mai:

  1. Lower Cost of Living
  2. Cooler Temperatures in High Season
  3. Incredible Cafe and Coworking Options
  4. Less Traffic, Quicker to Get Around
  5. More Relaxing Vibe
  6. Beautiful Mountain Views Nearby
  7. More Family-Friendly

Even though the Chiang Mai list is much longer, I actually prefer Bangkok overall, personally. I’ll explain that more as we go.

Now, let’s take a closer look at each of these points below.

Why Bangkok is Better Than Chiang Mai

Personally, I love Bangkok. It’s one of my top cities to stay, and it’s really the closest thing I have to a permanent “home” in Asia so far. It’s the perfect sweet spot between super-convenient megacity and SE Asian bargain.

And here are 3 reasons why personally, I prefer Bangkok over Chiang Mai:

1. Big City Energy and Skyline Views

Bangkok is a big city—with city views and vibes—but Chiang Mai is not really. Despite being the second most populated city in Thailand, Chiang Mai doesn’t feel like a big city at all.

This might be due to the fact that Chiang Mai has no skyscrapers at all. To be precise, there are no buildings over 150 meters tall in Chiang Mai. Meanwhile, Bangkok has over 100 of those.

Personally, I love the city skyline views in Bangkok. I love the high-rise condos and the rooftop bars. But you’re simply not going to get that in Chiang Mai.

Bangkok has a busier feel in general. Chiang Mai has a more relaxed vibe. This could be a good or bad thing, depending on your personal taste. But for me, the busy vibe of Bangkok is energizing.

2. More Endless Restaurants and Shopping Options

Bangkok is huge—so, it naturally has more options for restaurants and shopping.

Bangkok’s shopping malls are massive, modern, and beautiful. I already gushed about them in my Bangkok pros and cons article. Chiang Mai has a few big shopping malls, too—but they don’t compare to Bangkok’s.

The grocery stores in Bangkok are also a lot more impressive. Especially if you want to easily find international food options, Bangkok’s Gourmet Market and Villa Market stores are hard to beat.

As far as restaurants, Chiang Mai is actually pretty solid, especially with an impressive cafe scene. That said, Bangkok is just so massive, there are still more total places to explore, from every cuisine you can imagine.

3. Better Air Quality in “Burning Season”

For a few months every year, Chiang Mai’s air quality gets really bad. It’s called the burning season, as it’s caused by farmers burning crops in the north of Thailand. It typically starts in February, with the worst months being March and April.

Most expats and digital nomads leave Chiang Mai during the burning season. Of course, you can use it as an opportunity to visit other parts of Thailand or other countries entirely—but it’s a bit of an inconvenience.

Bangkok’s air quality isn’t perfect, but it’s better. Most years, Bangkok has at least a few days in the 150 to 200 AQI range (“Unhealthy”). But in the burning season, Chiang Mai has days in the 200 to 300 AQI range (“Very Unhealthy”).

Both cities tend to have the cleanest air from June to October, in case you want to plan your Thailand stays around that. (Unfortunately, these are also the months with the most rain.)

Why Chiang Mai Is Better Than Bangkok

Even though I personally prefer the big city life of Bangkok, I can see a lot of benefits to Chiang Mai, objectively speaking. Here are 7 big ones:

1. Lower Cost of Living

Out of the common digital nomad destinations in Southeast Asia, Chiang Mai is one of the cheapest. It’s maybe gotten more expensive in recent years, but it’s still cheaper than Bangkok.

Chiang Mai is 23% cheaper than Bangkok overall, according to Expatistan. But here’s what’s crazier: Chiang Mai housing is only about one half of the cost of Bangkok housing.

So, you’re going to find much cheaper deals for places to live in Chiang Mai. That can especially be true if you’re flexible about the neighborhood you live in.

The popular Nimman area has gotten noticeably more expensive, but there are still very cheap places to stay if you look elsewhere around Chiang Mai.

2. Cooler Temperatures in High Season

Most of Southeast Asia tends to be hot and humid all the time. And that pretty much applies to Bangkok. But Chiang Mai actually has some cooler temps from around November to February.

In those months, Chiang Mai is still nice and warm during the day, but it gets a bit chilly at night, and starts off cooler in the mornings. In those months, the average daily low for Chiang Mai drops to 14 to 18 °C (57 to 64 °F).

I was lucky enough to stay in Chiang Mai in early February once, and the temperatures in the morning were so cool and nice. It was really refreshing after coming from Bangkok, where it was still hot and humid pretty much all the time.

3. Incredible Cafe and Coworking Options

Chiang Mai is one of the most popular digital nomad destinations in the world. And that makes sense when you see the huge array of cafes and coworking spaces that are perfect for working online.

Honestly I’m not sure which came first to Chiang Mai—the digital nomads, or the incredible selection of cafes—but they’re a perfect match for each other now.

Of course, Bangkok has plenty of cafes, as well—it’s a huge city. Even if you limited yourself solely to Starbucks locations, you would have dozens of options in Bangkok.

But Chiang Mai seems to have an edge when it comes to really interesting, beautiful cafes. I’ve been to many themed cafes in Chiang Mai, including an outer space cafe, and an airplane cafe.

See some specific cafe recommendations in my Chiang Mai pros and cons post.

Chiang Mai also has Yellow Coworking, which is the coolest coworking space I’ve ever been to. It’s such a nice, large, open, modern, well-designed, comfy space.

While staying in Bangkok, I toured a few coworking spaces and then tried a month at The Hive Thonglor. It was alright, but not as great as Yellow in Chiang Mai for me.

4. Less Traffic, Quicker to Get Around

Bangkok traffic can get pretty bad. Here are two quick stories from my own experience:

  • I’ve had a taxi ride that should’ve been 15 minutes, but it ended up taking about an hour and a half due to rush hour traffic.
  • One time in the morning, my taxi was sitting completely still in gridlock traffic for ~5 minutes. I eventually just paid the cost on the meter and got out, so I could switch to a motorbike taxi.

In comparison, I can’t remember experiencing any seriously bad traffic in Chiang Mai. I’m sure it gets slower at rush hour, but overall it’s a much smaller city, and it seems a lot quicker and smoother to get around.

However, just as a side note: You will typically see more random stray dogs running around the streets in Chiang Mai. Those guys can sometimes get in the way and randomly stop some vehicles.

5. More Relaxing Vibe

This is the flip-side to the “big city vibes” mentioned for Bangkok above. Chiang Mai feels kind of relaxing, especially for a city of its size.

What creates the relaxing vibe in Chiang Mai? Part of it could be the physical aspects—the mountains on the horizon, the narrow streets, the lack of skyscrapers. The low cost of living may also just make it feel easier to live in Chiang Mai.

Many digital nomads go to Chiang Mai, find a cheap room, maybe join a coworking space, and buckle down to focus on building their business. It makes sense to me.

Chiang Mai doesn’t have all the potential distractions of Bangkok—not as much crazy nightlife, for example. It’s a more chill, laid-back place where you can live a good life for cheap, while focusing on work if you choose to.

6. Beautiful Mountain Views Nearby

Neither Bangkok nor Chiang Mai have a beach—but Chiang Mai has mountains. In fact, Chiang Mai province has 716 named mountains.

Some of the most famous mountains in the area are Doi Suthep and Doi Inthanon. These peaks have beautiful temples and amazing views, as you would expect from a mountain in Thailand.

You can also find hiking, swimming, and other outdoors adventures nearby to Chiang Mai. These activities are not quite as near at hand when you’re staying in Bangkok.

Bangkok has some parks, but they’re nothing compared to the actual mountains right outside of Chiang Mai. So, Chiang Mai may be a better pick for the outdoorsy, nature-loving type.

7. More Family-Friendly

Whether you like it or not, Thailand is partly known for its crazy nightlife and—let’s be honest—sex tourism. In certain parts of Bangkok and Pattaya, these elements can especially be prominent and “in your face.”

But in comparison, Chiang Mai has a lot less of that. There is still some nightlife available to explore in Chiang Mai if you wish, but it doesn’t seem like the main draw of the city.

Chiang Mai might be a better choice if you want a more wholesome view of Thailand. Pattaya would probably be the worst choice, in that case. For Bangkok, it would depend on the area.

Overall, there are tons of reasons why Chiang Mai may be the perfect nomad destination for many of you. That said, if you’re a big city lover like myself, Bangkok has way more big city feel to it.

Ultimately, I recommend trying both cities for yourself. They’re both great places for a short trip, as well as a longer stay. So sample them both, and see which one fits you better.