Having spent the largest part of the last 3 months in the expat center of Chiang Mai, here are some thoughts on living in “The Rose of the North.” Overall, it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience, and, for me, at least, Chiang Mai easily lives up to its vaunted reputation. But no place is perfect and there is plenty of room for improvement in Thailand’s second city.
Chiang Mai: The Good
Rimpings, Tops, Tesco Lotus are all huge and omnipresent throughout the city. (With rumors of even larger ones like Makro and Big C further out.) Full of western goodies and Thai treats, they made it easy to cook Indian, Mexican, and Italian, eat breakfast cereal, and in general find the western convenience of your choice.
For fruits, veggies, fresh tofu, fresh rice noodles, crushed peanuts, cilantro, 12 kinds of rice, steamed sweet potatoes, rice cakes, and things on skewers, all at super cheap prices, the Thai markets are exceptional. Making Pad Kee Mao or Curry Fried Rice for less than a dollar every night was a fantastic treat.
There so many temples that a full day biking around to visit them would not cover half of them. Wikitravel says it better than I ever can:
“Inside Chiang Mai’s remaining city walls are more than 30 temples dating back to the founding of the principality, in a combination of Burmese, Sri Lankan and Lanna Thai styles, decorated with beautiful wood carvings, Naga staircases, leonine and angelic guardians, gilded umbrellas and pagodas laced with gold filigree.”
There are enough great cafes here that a dozen people could pick a favorite each and they would all be right. A friend loves the spicy coffee and relaxed atmosphere of Bird’s Nest. I also like Peppermint, which has a great environment. But my favorite is the Tea Tree Café, which feels homey and sunny and is the closest thing to a living room that many a traveler will find for many a month.
Surrounded by a moat, the old city is a warren of cafés, restaurants, shops, leafy alleys, street art, and lots and lots of dogs. Like a bigger Luang Prabang, the vibe of the city is perfect and although touristy (or “touristic” as my Euro friends say) the locals haven’t lost control. For a backpacker ghetto, it’s pretty nice. (Though stay tuned for the “Fugly” portion at the end of this post.)
Water Refills Station Everywhere
This is a huge one when you are living somewhere. No secret that it’s hot and sunny every day, and buying bottles of water every day is a super bummer. Nothing like filling up a hotel rubbish bin with plastic bottles to feel like a bad person. But in Chiang Mai, you can fill up a liter bottle for 1 baht (3 cents) and there must be more than 100 stations throughout the city. Seriously, I wish these were in every city and town of Asia.
In addition to markets both super and veggie, the Walking Markets on Saturday and Sunday, plus the everyday Night Bazaar are pretty great for wandering. I’m not much of one for buying stuff, but there are lots of cool things here, lots of food, plenty of street musicians, and, if you’re lucky, you might wander into a dog show. In short, the markets are among the best I’ve seen in Asia and a really fun way to spend part of an afternoon or evening.
Close to Pai / Chiang Rai / Doi Inthanon
Each of these places is 3 hours or less by car, and each is great in its own right. For more on the merits of each place, stay tuned. Blog posts about each are forthcoming.
Yes there are curries and noodles a plenty, but there are also several above-average Mexican places too! Chiang Mai has been compared to an alternate universe Portland, and while it’s nowhere near that level of veggie friendly, it certainly qualifies as a vegan haven. Favorites include Imm Aim, Khun Churn, Bamboo Bee, Morning Glory, and Beetroot Stories (though I have to admit that we cooked at home far more than went out.)
Chiang Mai: The Bad
Hailed as a hip urbane center, I found it to be a boring, overdeveloped, bad traffic-having stretch with little to recommend it. However, there is a cool statue of Godzilla in the back streets.
Too many yuppIES
Digital nomads ain’t hardly the hardy hippy explorers of yore. I say that knowing I cart a computer around everywhere, but many people here are simply trying to recreate their lives from back home (wherever that may be) here for less money. Travel in its purest form isn’t meant to be a coupon, and there is a distinct lack of self-awareness and whatever skills travel teaches among many of the expats here.
One of the cool things about living in a part of Seoul without many foreigners was the “waygook nod.” Seeing a foreigner usually garnered, minimally, a nod of solidarity and maybe even an invitation to hang out or get beers. I have lots of friendships that began from walking past someone in the street. In Chiang Mai, with 30,000 foreigners at any given time, foreigners are often the default. It’s hardly a damning indictment of the city, but something I would kind of miss if I lived here for any length of time.
The ring road surrounding the city is hardly the worst traffic in Asia, but it’s tough to cross the street. As Americans drive cars every chance they get, Thais seem to scooter everywhere, and walking, biking, and jogging are all more challenging than they could be in a city with better planning/less growth.
In short, the good of Chiang Mai far outweighs the bad. And therein lies the problem. Life here isn’t very different from like in the US or UK or Oz or NZ. Everything is a bit cheaper, sure, (It’s easy to spend around 500 dollars a month and still live well) but travel is more than just a discounted version of living at home. And so while Chiang Mai was everything I was hoping for and more, I don’t think I’ll ever spend months here again. Not when there are so many parts of the world with equal highs but more challenging lows.
Chiang Mai: The Fugly
It’s not as bad as Bangkok or Southern Thailand, but sex tourism is alive and thriving here. When will travelers stop pretending that the money to do something gives them the right to do it? These sexy girl bars are a sad, sad indictment of what tourism has done to the locals, a complete objectification of fellow human beings. This isn’t anything to do with puritanism; either; I am fine with prostitution in, say, New Zealand or Canada. But here, there can be no justification for using the wealth discrepancy to create an industry of women (and men, and ladyboys) who CAN earn so much money. And this is to say nothing of the immigrant women who are lured here by false pretenses. I do understand the temptation for lonely rich men to trade their money for sex and feigned affection, but it’s one of the worst legacies of tourism and has to stop.