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The Creative Professional’s Guide to Chiang Mai

Few places have as strong a reputation among digital nomads as Chiang Mai in Thailand. The northern city has become an expat mecca, and much of my motivation to head north from Bangkok instead of south to islands was driven by the desire to see for myself just how friendly the town was to remote work. I’m certainly not the first to have been lured by promises of strong WiFi, cozy cafes, and an easy pace of life. Of everywhere I’ve been on my RTW trip, no place fits all the living abroad criteria quite like Chiang Mai, often called the Boston to Bangkok’s New York. And while the city itself has become rapidly Westernized, it still provides a great base for exploring Thailand’s north and getting some unique cultural experiences.

When to Go

The Northern Hemisphere’s winter is the best time to head to the tropics. Weather in Chiang Mai from October to April is dry and sunny with more mild temperatures. Temperatures start to rise in March, and the rainy season begins in July.

Want to time your visit to a festival? The water-drenched Thai New Year, or Songkran, takes place in April, while a slightly less macabre version of Phuket’s Vegetarian Festival is celebrated in October.

How Much to Spend

In December, a one-way flight to Chiang Mai will run at least $600-700. As little as $5 a night will get you a bed in a dorm, while private rooms can be found for as little as $10. Meals out are rarely more than $5 and never more than $10. Chiang Mai is fairly pedestrian friendly, but if you do avail yourself of public transport, a ride within the city is typically 20 baht, or a little over 50 cents.

Thailand uses the baht as currency. $1 is worth about 35 baht. It’s best to keep a conversion app on your phone, or carry a small calculator with you to keep track of the exchange rate. There unfortunately isn’t a quick, easy, and relatively accurate shortcut to take here.

Getting There

Chiang Mai does have an international airport that serves as the main gateway to the northern parts of Thailand. It only serves routes in Asia, so coming from Europe or the United States, you will definitely have to connect elsewhere. Taxi services run to the city center and cost less than $5. Return trips from the city to the airport are less.

If you’re already in Thailand, there are overnight trains from Bangkok. The Chiang Mai train station is located east of the walled Old Quarter over the Ping River. It’s about a 30 to 45 minute walk, or you can flag down transport just outside the station.

Getting Around

Chiang Mai’s old quarter is compact enough that you can pretty easily get around solely on foot. Staying a little north of the center, I rarely spent more than 30 minutes walking to whatever destination was on my list that day.

If you do need to catch a ride – say to the train station or to Wat Doi Suthep – don’t look for Bangkok-style tuk tuks or meter taxis. Passenger transport in this neck of the woods is almost entirely by songthaew, pronounced “song tail.” These bright red vehicles are easy to spot and somewhat like pick-up trucks with a camper shell. They do operate very similarly to tuk tuks, but be prepared to share a bumpy ride with other passengers.

What to Pack

Lightweight and loose clothing is key in Southeast Asia. When packing for Chiang Mai, you want to take into consideration the tropical climate and the conservative culture. Religious sites in particular have strict dress codes. Always have a light layer to throw over your shoulders, and don’t bring any lowcut shirts. Linen pants and maxi skirts will keep you cool and covered for temple visits.

No matter the length of your stay, you won’t need more than one week’s worth of clothes. There is a self-service laundromat near the old town’s east gate – a rarity in Southeast Asia. One load in the washer and dryer costs 100 baht, less than $3.

Wear shoes that are easy to slip on and off. As in most Asian households, Chiang Mai hostels and guest houses require all who enter to remove their shoes at the door. You likely don’t need to worry about anyone running off with your shoes, but just in case, it’s a good idea to stick to an inexpensive pair without any sentimental value attached.

WiFi throughout the city is strong, so you won’t need any special gear to boost your signal. There are so many welcoming cafes to work from, however, you will want to have your charger with you for long afternoons in front of a smoothie and your laptop. Thailand uses Type A and Type C power sockets. No adapter is necessary for American or European visitors.

Where to Stay

An alley off Manee Nopparat Road near the Samsung Center is jam packed with hostels and guest houses. I firmly do not recommend the one I stayed in (At Baan Khun 2), but the general location is good as it’s right across the street from the old city’s north gate, but far enough from the center to be less expensive. And with that kind of selection, you can easily show up in town with no reservation and check out properties before you book a room.

Where to Eat

Thailand is famed for its street food and the best way to sample as many dishes as possible is to make sure at least part of your visit falls on a Sunday. Each Sunday night the city center transforms into Walking Street, a massive night market filled with dining, shopping, and throngs upon throngs of pedestrian crowds. Banana roti, noodle soups, and spicy grilled sausages are all classic street dishes to look out for. The area around Wat Sam Phao temple is especially popular with food vendors.

For a calmer introduction to Thai food, pull up a flimsy chair at Khao Tom 1B. Just one small step above a street stall, meals here are inexpensive and incredibly tasty. My cucumber and crispy pork salad was the first thing I had in Thailand that I felt was really properly Thai spicy. It and a glass of Thai iced tea came in under $4. Were I to move to Chiang Mai, I would definitely become a regular here.

For a more special night out, the Writers Club & Wine Bar is famous for its Westerner-friendly atmosphere. Perhaps the only place you can get a decent glass of wine in Southeast Asia, this centrally located restaurant has a serious reputation among expats and creatives in town. Their creamy yellow curry is the height of Thai comfort food.

Hands down the best cafe meal I had in town was at Clay Studio Coffee in the Garden. Step through this outdoor cafe’s brick gate and you’ll feel like you’re in another world. The large garden patio is crammed with terracotta statues and art. Because of the primarily outdoor location, there wasn’t quite enough outlet access to make me choose this as a workspace. But it is a great place to get your creative juices flowing, and their fresh spring rolls were to die for. It really might be one of the coolest cafes in the world.

Where to Work

The Birds Nest and Good Morning Chiang Mai are probably the two most recommended digital nomad cafes in the city. Both definitely live up to their hype. Good Morning Chiang Mai has more of a Thai selection on its menu, while the Birds Nest focuses on healthy Western sandwiches and wraps, as well as a host of smoothies. (Peanut butter banana and mango with coconut milk were my go-tos.) Both have very good WiFi, ample seating, and plenty of easy-to-access outlets. I spent more time at the Birds Nest mainly because it was much closer to my hostel.

These are naturally both very popular workspaces, however, so when you need a quiet place to focus, get outside the city center and go to Hana Zono. Food offerings at this Japanese style cafe are slim, but if you need silence to work, there’s no better place in town to concentrate over a matcha latte.

I also spent a fair bit of time at Into the Woods purely because it was really close to my hostel. They do have a full menu with dishes like fried glass noodles, as well as a tempting case full of super-rich desserts like chocolate cheesecake and red velvet brownies. The atmosphere is whimsical with many menu items carrying a fairy tale theme. If you’re lucky, you can score one of the comfy armchairs in the back, but if not there are plenty of outlets around the dining room.

What to Do

Chiang Mai is perhaps best known for its temples, and they really are everywhere. There are dozens in and around the walled Old Quarter you can explore, but Wat Chedi is perhaps the most popular central location. Every weekend, the temple hosts morning monk chats, where you can meet a Buddhist monk, learn about their lifestyle, and help them practice their English. A little farther afield, Wat Doi Suthep is famed for its early morning views. Hop in a songthaew and in about 45 minutes, you’ll be atop Chiang Mai’s nearby mountain. There are actually several attractions on the mountaintop, including a viewpoint over the city, a waterfall, and a jade factory, but the most popular is the Doi Suthep temple. Follow the serpent-lined 306 steps to the awe-inspiring golden pagoda, and don’t plan on making it back to the city until the afternoon.

Lanna culture is one of many things that sets northern Thailand apart from the rest of the country. There are many art galleries peppered throughout the city, but the Lanna Folklife Museum and the Chiang Mai City Arts & Cultural Centre are two of the top places to get an introduction to true regional works. With any luck, you’ll also catch glimpses of Chiang Mai’s burgeoning street art scene – many murals boast Lanna influences. If museum hopping isn’t your speed, you can still get a dose of the Lanna life by pampering yourself at Fah Lanna Spa. The centrally located day spa draws everything from its massage techniques to the natural ingredients in its products from Lanna tradition.

There are many wildlife attractions close to Chiang Mai, but it’s important to approach these responsibly. Instead of tiger temples and elephant rides, book a visit to Elephant Nature Park. This is a true elephant sanctuary, which rescues animals from abusive riding camps, forced performances, and illegal logging. The property now serves over 70 elephants and there’s no better place to get close to your favorite gentle giant in a safe and considerate way. Visitors help feed and bathe the animals while touring the property with a knowledgeable guide who can tell you the stories behind each elephant you meet. Visits also include a buffet lunch and hotel pick-up. If Elephant Nature Park is all booked up, Elephant Jungle Sanctuary is a good alternative.

Chiang Mai is also an excellent base for Thai cooking classes. There are many good options to choose from, but I highly recommend Mama Noi. During the full day course, you’ll make a soup, a stir fry, a curry, an appetizer, and a dessert, plus fried spring rolls and Thai iced tea. In each category, you’ll have a few different recipes to choose from, but all the recipes are included in the cookbook you take home at the end of the day. The classes are held in a pretty organic garden just outside town and all the instructors are amazing and warm with a sharp sense of humor.

Looking for more budget friendly places you can work as a creative professional? Check out this digital nomad friendly guide to Ljubljana, Slovenia.

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4 Comments

  1. Sounds like a great place to set up for a while. I wish I had the freedom to do just that, and I bet you get to meet some fascinating people. I will definitely have to schedule a visit, even if I can’t do the whole ‘digital nomad’ thing.

    • Danielle Bricker

      May 14, 2017 at 2:16 pm

      I don’t know all the details of your personal situation, but if that freedom is really something you want, it might be more within your reach than you realize. There are certainly people who are not in any position to travel long-term, but I see lots of folks who do have the means and just think they don’t. A major obstacle is the way most folks talk about becoming a digital nomad – it’s really common among bloggers to say you just quit your job and sell your stuff and GO. I can’t speak for everyone, but that definitely wasn’t the case for me. I spent nearly three years planning and saving up before I could quit my job. And even then, it was just for one year, not necessarily a permanent change.
      At the end of the day, it’s about priorities. If you decide yours lie elsewhere, that’s totally cool. But if having the freedom to live overseas or travel while you work is genuinely something you want to do, please don’t write it off as impossible. I detail a lot of my early planning experiences here, and there are tons of great resources out there like Meet Plan Go and Location Rebel that can help you figure out what your path will be.

  2. I lived in Chiang Mai in 2012 and I miss it so much. Sunday Night Walking Street is my favourite. I would go almost every Sunday!

    • Danielle Bricker

      May 14, 2017 at 2:17 pm

      Honestly, I found Sunday Walking Street completely overwhelming. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere else that crowded! But I did get to try some good street foods, and it’s one of those things you have to do in Chiang Mai.

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