We often get asked what have been our favourite places on our travels, and Chiang Mai is always one that springs to mind. If we were to live in Chiang Mai again, and we definitely intend to some time in the not to distant future, there are only two areas we would even consider living – the Old Town and Nimmanhaemin (Nimman). Why? Because that’s where the action is, and if you’re going to live in Chiang Mai, you might as well be where everything is happening, right?
CHIANG MAI OLD TOWN
There are so many great reasons to set up base in the Old Town. The street food scene is better than anywhere else on Earth! Of course, we haven’t been everywhere on Earth, but we’ve been to a lot of places and Chiang Mai Old Town comes out on top. You will virtually never have to do any washing up again, and your visits to the supermarket will only be for restocking your cleaning products. Street food vendors selling delicious, fresh and healthy breakfasts, lunches and dinners will be within 100m of your front door no matter where you are, and the food markets which we discuss in more detail in the next chapter are amazing. Whatever you pay for a restaurant quality Thai meal in a Western city, expect to pay around 10% of that price in Chiang Mai, and the quality will be much better too. You also have easy access to many other cuisines such as American, Mexican and Italian when the cravings hit, although expect to pay close to Western prices and often the quality isn’t as good as you may have had back home.
The Old Town is the epicentre of tourist life in Chiang Mai, so you will get your Western fix just by walking out your front door thanks to all of the expats who have moved here, or tourists visiting for a few days. Of course we all want to experience the Thai way of life, but it’s comforting when you can easily get your Western fix as well. If you want to meet Westerners while staying in Chiang Mai, there is no better place to do it than the Old Town.
If you want to experience one of the many tourist attractions and adventures Chiang Mai has to offer, all of the tourist offices are in the Old Town. Tours to nearby towns, zip-lining through the jungle, visiting Elephant sanctuaries, and all of the other wonderful activities available to visitors to Chiang Mai will be much easier to organise if you’re based in the Old Town. And don’t forget, the Old Town is where Chiang Mai began, so it’s packed full of incredible Wats and temples, the two biggest markets in town called the Saturday Night Market and Sunday Night Market (not a lot of thought was put into naming them obviously) as well as many other famous tourist attractions.
If you’re looking for nightlife, you won’t be disappointed. There are so many bars and clubs on the edge of the Old Town that you’ll find something to suit your tastes. Some of them have a seedy underbelly due to the ‘friendly’ girls working there, but whatever you are looking for you can find here. There’s even a Downunder Bar and other expat bars for those wanting to drink Western beers and watch sport from back home.
The only downside is the lack of long-term accommodation options available. There are many short term places to stay, ranging from backpacker hostels offering the bare essentials, to boutique hotels that are much more pleasant. It’s not impossible to find long-term accommodation, but it’s easier in other parts of Chiang Mai.
Most expats and digital nomads who move to Chiang Mai for an extended period of time end up living in Nimman, and it’s easy to see why. While it’s more expensive than anywhere else in Chiang Mai, when you weigh up the living costs against most other Western cities, it’s still pretty cheap.
Nimman is where the cool kids hang out. Designer clothes, good quality restaurants, the best nightlife in Chiang Mai and more awesome coffee shops than you can poke a stick are just some of the qualities that makes Nimman a very attractive place to live. Unfortunately you won’t see the same number of street vendors or cheap restaurants as you’ll find in the Old Town. They’re still about, you just might have to look a little harder and travel a little further.
Its close proximity to Chiang Mai University means there is a high percentage of students in the area, which is why almost everything on offer is modern, trendy and fashionable. While Nimman is a student haven, it’s also where the Thai upper class lives. You’ll find most of Chiang Mai’s attractive, well-healed residents living in this part of town.
For expats who work, there are a wide range of options for you to hook into excellent internet reception. If you don’t have Wi-Fi at your accommodation, which would be unusual, you can either head to one of the local cafés where you can almost always get free Wi-Fi, or pay a very small fee and use one of the dedicated work hubs. Here you’ll meet plenty of expats working away, so it provides a great opportunity to make friends, as well as network if you’re looking to pick up clients or collaborate on projects.
You won’t have any problems finding short, medium or long term accommodation options in Nimman, from budget travellers right through to those wanting to live in luxury. Don’t let the cost of living in Nimman compared to the rest of Chiang Mai put you off. It’s still remarkably cheap compared to the cost of living in Western countries, and you can find decent accommodation for a fraction of the rent you’d pay in Australia, America, the UK and other Western countries.
Both Nimman and the Old Town are very Westernised, although that doesn’t mean you won’t get a taste of Thai culture. But if you want to immerse yourself in traditional Chiang Mai life, there are other areas of town to stay or live that would be more suitable.
This area is just south-east of the Old Town and it’s where we based ourselves for our first month in Chiang Mai. There’s no doubt there is a seediness to the area given the number of karaoke bars with scantily clad young ladies waiting for customers at the entrance. But it’s really close to the Old Town and costs much less for accommodation, and the number of places to eat, ranging from street vendors to cheap restaurants, is insane!
Just north of the Old Town, this area has really cheap accommodation and about as many street food options as anywhere else in the city. It’s close proximity to the Old Town makes it appealing, and the Muang Chiang Mai Stadium is located here as well. It’s a bustling place filled with school kids, uni students, and exercise enthusiasts, and has a great playground for little ones. In the early evening this place is thriving with lots of little local kids, runners pounding the stadium track, and an 80’s style aerobics class in full swing from 5:45pm.
Directly east of the Old Town is the Riverside area featuring the Ping River. You’ll be in close proximity to many bars and restaurants, including Western expat bars, while living on the doorstep of the very busy Night Bazaar. This market stretches for about 1km down Chang Khlan Road, is packed with tourists and takes place every night.
Of course there are many other areas of Chiang Mai to live. The further away you get from the Old Town the cheaper it will be, the less Westerners you’ll see and the more authentic your Thai experience will be. However, just remember that a little amount of money goes a long way in Chiang Mai. So while you might be thinking about renting something that is dirt cheap, a few extra Baht per month could be the difference between sharing a bathroom and having one to yourself, or living in a studio room or a 1-2 bedroom apartment.
If you want to live in Chiang Mai and you haven’t been before, set yourself up in the Old Town for a month, get a feel for the city and figure out where everything is. After a couple of weeks start looking for an apartment and you’ll be well on your way to living a wonderful, calm and chilled out life in one of the best places in the world to settle down.