Pros and Cons of Living in Chiang Mai (What I Like and Dislike)

Near the beginning of my digital nomad journey, I lived in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for a little over two months. In fact, it was the first place I had my sights set on, due to its fame as a “digital nomad hotspot.”

In the end, I found that Chiang Mai is not my personal favorite place to live long-term. However, it really does have a lot going for it. For many expats, it’s truly the perfect home base.

In this post, I’ll share a bunch of details about what I personally liked and disliked about Chiang Mai, organized into a “pros and cons” list, with pictures I took myself.

8 Pros of Living in Chiang Mai

Let’s start by looking at 8 reasons why Chiang Mai is so special.

1. Very Low Cost of Living

Southeast Asia overall is pretty cheap—but Chiang Mai has even better deals than most places. If you compare prices between three popular Thailand destinations—Chiang Mai, Bangkok, and Phuket—it’s clear Chiang Mai is the cheapest.

When I was in Chiang Mai, the prices were even lower due to COVID. I was staying in a nice modern hotel in one of the most expensive parts of the city (Nimmanhaemin) for just $15 per night. That’s not a hostel or a bunk bed, either.

I took a quick look at Airbnb while writing this post, and I’d say the prices in Chiang Mai still seem around 30% cheaper than Bangkok. And obviously, you’ll get even much cheaper deals if you’re looking for a long-term lease.

The cost of food will depend a lot on where you eat, but some of the local Thai places can be just 30 to 100 Baht (~$1 to $3 USD) for a full meal.

Getting rides around Chiang Mai is cheap, as well. The red taxi trucks (songthaew) typically charge foreigners 100 Baht (~$3 USD) per ride. And you can find cheap rides on the Grab app (like Uber), as well.

(Yes, the songthaew trucks usually charge more to foreigners than locals. This is common across many venues in Thailand. If you’re going to live in Thailand, get used to it!)

2. Tons of Interesting Cafes

I’ve never seen so many awesome cafes in one city. Many of them have beautiful designs or a unique theme. I didn’t have nearly enough time to visit them all, but I went to about ten. Here were my top three:

  • MARS.cnx is a cafe themed after the planet Mars. The inside looks like a spaceship, and there are areas where you can take pictures with the moon, a canyon, and other such space stuff. Also a fine place to get work done.
  • Air Diamond Cafe is an actual, real airplane that was made into a cafe. You actually sit in airplane seats while sipping your drinks or eating your food. (This cafe is north outside of Chiang Mai city a bit.)
  • The Baristro Asian Style is Japanese-themed, and really beautiful. This was my favorite “normal cafe” in Chiang Mai without a crazy theme. Awesome place to get some work done in a beautiful setting.

Alternatively, if you prefer co-working spaces, there are several, as well. Personally, I joined Yellow Coworking for a month and was happy with the experience. You can hang out there 24/7 if you join, and it’s comfy with great wifi.

Alt_ChiangMai is another co-working space I heard good things about.

3. Mountains and Nature Nearby

Chiang Mai is surrounded by beautiful mountains. If you love camping or hiking, you’ll have lots to explore.

Perhaps the most famous nearby mountain is Doi Suthep. There’s a big temple near the top. You can get one of the red songthaew trucks to take you up there. I don’t remember the exact price, but it’s cheaper than you’d expect.

Personally, I’d also recommend a place called Nam Tok Bua Tong (น้ําตกบัวตอง). It’s nicknamed the “Sticky Waterfall,” as it’s a series of small waterfalls that you can actually climb up (barefoot). Really unique and fun!

If you can drive a couple of hours from the city, you can visit the famous town Pai—and you’ll encounter many beautiful mountain views and potential camping spots on the drive there, as well.

4. Digital Nomad Community

Chiang Mai might be the #1 city in the world associated with digital nomads and online entrepreneurship. You can find all kinds of groups and events about online business at the co-working spaces and elsewhere in Chiang Mai.

Personally, I was in Chiang Mai during COVID, so there were not as many nomads present as usual. Still, I was easily able to find an SEO group that met up weekly.

The SEO meetings were mostly free, featuring high-level discussions with thought leaders like Matt Diggity, Kyle Roof, and others who have made millions from online marketing. There’s also an SEO conference in Chiang Mai most years.

My understanding is that Chiang Mai groups exist for Amazon FBA, drop-shipping, and other online business models, as well. The Nomad Summit conference is often held in Chiang Mai, too.

5. International Airport

It’s possible to fly directly in and out of Chiang Mai from quite a few international destinations. Obviously, the local CNX airport won’t offer as many destinations as Bangkok or Kuala Lumpur—but this city is far from isolated.

The Chiang Mai airport is a lot smaller than the Bangkok airports, so you can typically get in and out quicker. That’s definitely a big “pro” if you’ll be coming and going from Chiang Mai often.

6. A Less “Touristy” Thai City

Some parts of Phuket, Pattaya, and Bangkok are truly crowded with tourists. In my Phuket pros and cons list, I explained how Phuket can really feel like a tourist bubble. But Chiang Mai, less so.

When I moved from Phuket to Chiang Mai, I noticed a big change: I was no longer being flagged down by motorbike taxis and massage girls every ten feet when I walked down the street. Chiang Mai is more like a normal city, not a tourist trap.

Don’t get me wrong, CM is still popular with foreigners—especially the Nimman area. And you can do lots of tourist stuff like seeing elephants and temples. But it has less of a “tourist bubble” feel compared to Phuket or Pattaya.

7. A Less “Seedy” Thai Destination

Some of Thailand’s fame comes from its nightlife—which is not always the most wholesome thing… In Pattaya especially, the sex industry is really prominent and out in the open. Parts of Bangkok are well known for this element, too.

Chiang Mai has some nightlife, but it’s not what the city is famous for. Overall, Chiang Mai is more of a family-friendly destination, and that has an effect on the overall vibe and what kinds of foreigners the city attracts.

If you love Thailand’s nature, food, and culture, but you want to avoid the whole “sexpat” phenomenon, Chiang Mai might be a good choice.

8. Cooler Temps During High Season

Thailand tends to be quite hot and humid. And most places, like Bangkok and Phuket, maintain roughly the same heat year-round. But Chiang Mai is a little different.

Seated in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai gets a bit cooler in the months of Nov to Jan. I experienced this myself, and it was quite nice. The average daily high temps are still around 29°C (85°F), but especially in the mornings, it’s cooler.

Chiang Mai doesn’t get as cool as northern Vietnam (like Hanoi), or mountain destinations like Baguio in the Philippines—so it’s not the coldest place in SE Asia. But it does give you a bit of a respite from the heat in certain months.

3 Cons of Living in Chiang Mai

No place is perfect. Here are three downsides I saw about living in Chiang Mai.

1. Burning Season

Every year, roughly from February to April, the air quality in Chiang Mai gets quite bad. It’s caused by farmers burning large swathes of land to clear it. Many digital nomads and expats avoid or leave Chiang Mai during these months.

In reality, some days are worse than others. You can always check the air quality index (AQI) online to get a sense of the forecast and current situation. On the worst days, the AQI is above 200 (“Very Unhealthy”) or even 300 (“Hazardous”). (source)

Some expats don’t actually seem to mind the burning season too much. But if you do stay in Chiang Mai during those months, you’ll probably at least want to spend most of your time indoors, and wear a mask when you do go out.

2. No Beach

Thailand is famous for its beaches—but Chiang Mai doesn’t have one. So, you don’t really have the full “tropical vacation vibe” to the same extent as Phuket, Koh Samui, or Bali in Indonesia.

There’s still beautiful nature nearby, but you’ll need to leave the city for most of it. So it’ll require driving, or paying someone to drive you. You can’t just wake up and walk out onto the beach right outside your hotel like some places in Thailand.

3. Not a Big City

This one is a personal preference, of course—it may be a “pro” for some of you. But I was a bit surprised to see how much Chiang Mai doesn’t feel at all like a big city.

Chiang Mai is the second most-populated city in Thailand—but the vibe is nothing like Bangkok. There are barely any skyscrapers. It’s a spread-out city, somewhat quiet and peaceful, with a university, temples, and a bunch of cafes.

Personally, I prefer the “big city energy” of a place like Bangkok. I like city skylines, I love staying in high-rises, and I even love crowded places. Chiang Mai is a bit quiet and slow in comparison.

To me, Bangkok has a feeling of endless possibilities. There are just so many people and so many places to check out. But Chiang Mai is a bit less expansive. I could see myself getting bored quicker in Chiang Mai, personally.

However, you could also argue that Bangkok is just a short, cheap plane ride away. You could easily fit some big-city Bangkok weekends into a productive, quiet Chiang Mai expat life.

Overall, Chiang Mai is an awesome place for a many expats and digital nomads. If you want a cheap place to focus on working in cafes, meeting other digital nomads, and enjoying a slightly less-touristy side of Thailand, it may be perfect for you.