Chiang Mai, Thailand is is known as one of the top destination for digital nomads. It doesn’t matter if you are an aspiring digital nomad or already a veteran when it comes to living the location-independent lifestyle – everybody seems to be recommending Chiang Mai
But, just like most things that are hyped in this world… could Chiang Mai actually be overrated as THE city for digital nomads? I’ll share my opinion in today’s article!
Why Chiang Mai?
Thailand as a whole is known as a great destination for world travelers and digital nomads. A really low cost of living, delicious food, friendly locals and beautiful views – these are just a few of the things that make Thailand so enticing, and one of the cheapest countries in the world to be a DN in.
You have beaches a stone’s throw away (well, not in Chiang Mai, but still), you’ve got year-long warm weather, you have nature all around you and a completely different civilization to get in contact with… it can’t get any better!
But, as with any perfect spot out there, Thailand has its fair share of challenges for foreigners wishing to live there for longer periods of time.
The biggest challenge is the time you’re allowed to stay in the country: on most occasions, you will have to do the so called “visa runs” every 30 days in order to be allowed to live there.
Doing a visa run means that you cross the border out of Thailand, spend at least a night in a different country, then return to get your allowance of 30 more days in Thailand.
This is one of the main things that made Chiang Mai so popular: it’s in the Northern part of the country, close to Myanmar and even Laos.
This means that visa runs are more convenient: you don’t have to spend too much time in the bus to cross the border and it’s usually a lot cheaper than flying out and back into the country.
So from a practical point of view, Chiang Mai is perfect. It doesn’t have the beaches of the South or the islands, but it’s still extremely beautiful thanks to its raw nature and unbelievable views.
And despite the growing number of digital nomads flooding the city, it’s not as touristy as other more popular destinations in Thailand. It’s just perfect to launch your blog for cheap and turn it into a six figure business!
THE Digital Nomad Hotspot
I don’t think that there’s any city in the world that could be considered more popular than Chiang Mai right now. At least not when it comes to digital nomads and online entrepreneurs.
If you are a digital nomad, you live a life that’s completely different to what most people are used to. It’s beautiful and full of opportunities, indeed, but it can also prove to be extremely lonely if you choose the solo nomad route.
I am lucky enough to travel with my family, so I never get to feel really lonely, but it’s still difficult.
Being on the move constantly means that you don’t have a real social circle. You don’t have a bunch of old friends to hang out with whenever you have some time. You’re not always in a familiar place. You rarely get to talk with people who do the same thing that you do, who understand what you do and consider you normal, not mad.
So being in a place that’s full of likeminded people, people with similar goals to yours, with similar beliefs and expectations from life… well, this is priceless!
And when it comes to all this, Chiang Mai delivers.
In this case, the hype is real: there are tons of location independent people living there. Even better, you can meet all sorts of digital nomads: from those who just dove head first into the waters and are bootstrapping their way to success, to those who have already established some sort of an online presence and all the way to celebrities for the digital nomad scene… they’re all in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Most of the digital nomads living in Chiang Mai are extremely friendly and connecting with like-minded people is easier than ever.
You can literally go out for a walk and end up making new friends. Get into a random café or restaurant and make even more friends. It’s really that easy!
It’s true – most come and go as they have a world to explore, but there are also many who stick around for longer periods of time. And there’s always a new bunch of great people coming in!
This is pure gold in my opinion. I’m doing this online game since 2008 (which kind of makes me a dinosaur here!) and sometimes you can feel that you’re on the brink of going crazy.
And, as I said, I have the advantage of having the family close by and I’m never really alone. But you still need to connect with other people having the same interests and goals – and for that, Chiang Mai is like a gift from Heaven.
This is probably the best thing that can happen for those who choose to build an online business: be around other people who are doing the same.
It helps if they are successful, but in the end, simply being around people that go through what you do and help you stay motivated is priceless.
And this is – despite what most people would say – the main reason why I would indeed choose Chiang Mai as my starting Digital Nomad destination. Because, as we’ll see, there are plenty of cons there.
Chiang Mai: Cheap and Perfect?
This is what most people living here want you to believe: that this is a gift from Heaven. That everything’s perfect. That you’ll live like a king and you’ll only have to spend like $400 per month. You’ll swim in your own private pool all day, drinking cocktails and getting massages…
Well… it’s not like that!
There are many things that you can complain about when it comes to living and working in Chiang Mai, just like anywhere else in this world.
One of the most annoying periods of the year here is the so called burning season: that’s when farmers start burning their fields in order to prepare for a new season.
February, March and April are the worst months as you get really dense smoke all over the area. It can get so bad that being outside won’t be too fun because of all the smoke.
This is the reason why many digital nomads simply leave the city during the burning season or try to avoid it completely when coming here. I strongly recommend you to do the same.
Traffic is chaotic to say the least. Crowded and with nobody following any rules, you’ll always feel that you’re about to get hit by a car or scooter. It rarely happens, though, but it still feels strange and gives you the creeps. But it does happen, which makes it even more scary.
Crossing the street can also be an adventure, as well as it is an adventure to find actual sidewalks: they act like parking spaces for the scooters, they act as shop areas for street merchants and they’re extremely narrow anyways.
Getting around is also a bit difficult if you’re using your own two feet. You must get a scooter or a bike – that seems to be the norm. You can also rent a car, but the traffic is so bad that you’ll spend most of your time inside your vehicle, stuck in traffic.
Scooters and bikes give you more options, but they’re not ideal either. For me, things are even worse: shameful or not, I can’t ride a bike (or scooter) – so anybody like me will have an even tougher time there.
The streets themselves are usually dirty and the smell in some areas can really make your stomach churn.
For people used to living in Western Countries, this will probably be one of the biggest shocks here. It’s not uncommon to spot rats running around, while lizards and other insects are the norm – and they will find a way to make it inside your room unless you live on the higher grounds. The bugs and especially lizards are actually harmless, but still not much fun.
If you want to feel like back home – and strangely enough, many people coming here do – then expect to pay a price for it. Eating hamburgers or regular western food is pretty expensive in Chiang Mai: a good burger with fries can cost up to $15, which I wouldn’t consider cheap!
And forget about those $100 apartments that some people still try to push! Those are basically very small rooms that offer nothing but a bed and a dresser (and maybe air conditioning).
You won’t have a kitchen, you won’t really have anything but a bed to sleep in. While that’s not bad – and there are few (if any) places where you can get something like that in the Western world – it’s still far away from the glam some of people dream about.
In other words, it’s doable if you’re 20, but if you’re in your late 30s, with a family following you, that $100 accommodation is not doable.
Of course, it’s still cheaper overall to live here, but it is so when you live or try to live like the locals. Which is the best way to do it, in my opinion.
The weather is not perfect either. It never snows here and it’s never too cold, but it always seems to be too hot, which isn’t extremely fun either. It’s also very humid here and that hits you like a train.
You really can’t understand Thailand’s hot and humid weather until you actually get there.
But the good thing is that you get used to it and air conditioning makes everything more bearable. Plus, things are not that bad if you choose the peak touristy season, between November to February.
You will find a lot of digital nomads and tons of people to connect with, that’s true, but many are only there to play the game and they’ll have a product to sell. Have you join their retreat. A mastermind group with a monthly fee. A course of sorts.
And those who don’t try to get some profits off your skin… well, chances are that they won’t stay here for long.
So even though you can easily make connections and have a beautiful, active social life, it’s unlikely that you will have a solid circle of friends that are always around. However, it’s still way better than traveling alone and feeling lonely and depressed…
But one of the things that gets old really fast and really has you questioning your choice are the visa runs.
Most people tend to take them very lightly and see them as opportunities to travel some more – which is definitely the right approach, but you always worry “what if”.
What if the customs guy doesn’t want to renew your visa? It has happened in the past and having to go through this stressful “what if” scenario every month isn’t fun.
Sure, things have changed a bit in the past few years and now it’s easier to grab a longer stay permit in Chiang Mai… but still not something that everybody can do. So do some research before and see if you’ll have to do the monthly runs or not. (Trust me, they’re not fun after the 4th time)
So… is Chiang Mai overrated?
Despite all the negatives that I have mentioned above (and there might be others as well!), it doesn’t mean that Chiang Mai or Thailand in general is a bad place to be in.
On the contrary! There are so may Pros about living here, so many great things to see, to do, great people to meet and experiences to live that, for most nomads, they completely cancel out the Cons.
There are some who will find the bad things too much to handle and definitely many will be disappointed when they will realize that Chiang Mai doesn’t live up to their expectations, but that’s mostly the fault of those who glorify the city and this country, completely ignoring the bad things about it and only showing the good ones.
Remember: Thailand is a developing country. It’s completely different from the US, Western Europe or Australia (and any other similar countries).
It has its fair share of amazing things, but it has enough cons to require solid debating before you make the move here.
But, all in all, the vast majority of people coming to Chiang Mai end up loving the city and the region itself with all its Pros and Cons. It’s not perfect, but neither are we!
Is it overrated? It really depends on your expectations. But that many people can’t be wrong… right?
So share your own thoughts in the comments section below: I am really curious to see what you think about this city.