Chiang Mai vs Pattaya: Which Is Better for Expats and Nomads?

I’ve lived 2 months in Chiang Mai and 1 month in Pattaya as a digital nomad. To be frank, I enjoyed both, but neither was a perfect “home” for me. In this post, I’ll share 6 ways these cities differ, and why you might choose one or the other.

Keep in mind: I’m a single American male digital nomad in his 30s. I don’t speak Thai. I generally prefer big cities. I don’t drink alcohol or partake in much nightlife. All of this affects how I view Chiang Mai and Pattaya.

Overview: Living in Pattaya vs Chiang Mai

Pattaya and Chiang Mai have very different “vibes.” Pattaya is like a party beach town with crazy Thai nightlife—and Chiang Mai is a relaxing city surrounded by mountains with a ton of cafes.

They tend to attract a different “crowd” of expats and nomads, as I’ll discuss below. So it very much depends on your personal interests and preferences.

Personally, I found these 4 benefits of living in Chiang Mai:

  1. Incredible Cafes and Coworking Spaces
  2. Nearby Mountain Adventures
  3. Less “Seedy,” More Family-Friendly
  4. Cooler Temperatures in High Season

However, Pattaya had some good points, too. I found these 2 benefits of living in Pattaya:

  1. Beaches and Nearby Island Beauty
  2. Better Air Quality in “Burning Season”

I’ll explain all these points at more length below. Let’s start off with the benefits of Chiang Mai.

Why Chiang Mai Is Better

Overall, I liked Chiang Mai better than Pattaya. I guess for me, it feels more wholesome, and it feels like a better place to be productive as a digital nomad.

Here are 4 specific points that I liked better about Chiang Mai.

1. Incredible Cafes and Coworking Spaces

This point is especially relevant for digital nomads. If you want a public place to work online, Chiang Mai has some of the most robust options in the world.

Sure, Pattaya has its fair share of cafes, too. But, when it comes to unique and stunning ones, Chiang Mai has the upper hand. I’ve visited many themed cafes in Chiang Mai, like an outer space-themed cafe, and even an airplane one.

You can check out my specific Chiang Mai cafe suggestions in my post about the pros and cons of Chiang Mai.

Chiang Mai is also home to Yellow Coworking, the best coworking space I’ve ever seen. It’s a lovely, spacious, modern, well-set-up, and cozy place. (And there are a few other coworking spaces in Chiang Mai, too.)

2. Nearby Mountain Adventures

Pattaya has beaches, but Chiang Mai has mountains. And that comes with a lot of potential outdoors activities, along with beautiful views. To be precise, there are 716 named mountains in Chiang Mai province.

Two of the most famous mountains in the area are Doi Suthep and Doi Inthanon. Both of these famous mountains have beautiful temples and views.

If you love hiking and camping, Chiang Mai is probably the better choice, although you’ll still need to travel outside of the city itself to access it, of course.

3. Less “Seedy,” More Family-Friendly

Pattaya is basically “ground zero” for sex tourism in Thailand. It’s everywhere you look: Lady bars, prostitutes, massage parlors with special “upsells,” and everything else that goes along with it.

I heard someone say that “Pattaya doesn’t have a red-light district—Pattaya is a red-light district.” Meaning, the entire city is. Of course, that’s an exaggeration, but you get the point.

Meanwhile, Chiang Mai has some nightlife, and I’m sure you can find sexual services for sale, as well—but it’s not as much of a main draw of the city. More people come for other reasons that are more “wholesome.”

As such, the expat crowd in Chiang Mai may also feel more wholesome to network with. Lots of young entrepreneurs and digital nomads come to Chiang Mai to launch their businesses—not primarily to party.

4. Cooler Temperatures in High Season

Pattaya has the typical Southeast Asia climate: Basically all year, the daily high temperatures are between 30 and 35 °C (86 to 95 °F) and humid. But Chiang Mai actually has a bit cooler weather from November to February.

During those months, Chiang Mai is warm during the day, but it gets more chilly at night. It’s also a lot cooler in the mornings. In those months, the average daily low for Chiang Mai goes down to 14 to 18 °C (57 to 64 °F).

I was lucky to stay in Chiang Mai in early February once. The air in the morning was so cool and nice. It was very refreshing after spending much of the previous year in SE Asia with constant tropical heat.

Why Pattaya Is Better

Even though I personally like Chiang Mai more, that doesn’t mean Pattaya doesn’t come with benefits. Here are a few things I like about Pattaya.

1. Beaches and Nearby Island Beauty

Pattaya has beaches and a beautiful nearby island called Koh Lan. Meanwhile, if you’re living in Chiang Mai, going to the beach is going to require a bit of travel.

The beaches in Pattaya aren’t as amazing as those in other parts of Thailand, though. My sunset pictures from the beaches of Phuket were a lot more breathtaking, for example…

Still, I loved walking along the beach in Pattaya most evenings. It’s a nice way to spend some time, for sure.

As I mentioned above, Chiang Mai does have mountains, hiking and camping. So it really just depends what form of natural beauty and outdoors activity you prefer.

2. Better Air Quality in “Burning Season”

Each year for a few months, the air quality in Chiang Mai becomes really bad. This is known as the burning season, a period when farmers up north burn their crops. This usually starts in February, with the worst days usually in March and April.

During the burning season, Chiang Mai can have days when the AQI rating is between 200 and 300, which is “Very Unhealthy.”

A lot of expats and digital nomads leave Chiang Mai during the burning season. Ideally, you can use the time to travel to other nice destinations—but it’s still a hassle if you feel like you need to leave.

Pattaya’s air isn’t perfect either, but it’s better. In fact, I stayed in Pattaya during March, which is right in the middle of “burning season” up in the north—but the air was fine in Pattaya.

Taking all the factors into consideration, Chiang Mai was the better fit for me. That said, I like big cities the most, so I eventually found I like Bangkok even more than either of these cities.