Live in Thailand on $500 per month

My wife and I recently spent two months in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Relative to living costs, it definitely is one of the best cities for quality of life. There are other great cities around the world, but for a similar lifestyle, you would likely pay many times more. I have already written about why Chiang Mai is such a haven for digital nomads, so in this post I am going to provide more specific details on our living expenses and lifestyle in Thailand. We didn’t quite keep our costs under the elusive $500 per month budget, but we weren’t far off.

Accommodations in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Thailand is fantastic for short-term rentals of both guest houses and apartments. While most other countries still expect long-term contracts, Thailand is geared towards casual travelers and has accommodation for every budget and duration.

My wife and I paid $360 per month for a nice hotel style apartment ten minutes walk from the trendy Nimmanhaeman Street of Chiang Mai. Internet was included, but water and electricity were about an extra $30 per month.

Chiang Mai Apartment Thailand Live in Thailand on $500 per month

$360 per Month Chiang Mai Apartment

There were cheaper options, but we wanted a nice balcony with a view, a usable kitchen and a building with a swimming pool and exercise facilities. Eating breakfast on the garden facing balcony everyday was definitely worth a few dollars per day.

Chiang Mai Balcony Live in Thailand on $500 per month

The view from our balcony

I had an uncle say in the busier night market area for about $280 per month. He didn’t have a balcony and the building was a little run down, but it was still very acceptable accommodation.

Chiang Mai Thailand Apartment Larry Live in Thailand on $500 per month

$280 Chiang Mai Apartment

Another Uncle rents a house outside the city for about $200 with about another $100 per month for Internet and utilities. The house was furnished with three bedrooms, making it a great choice for a family or for those with roommates.

Chiang Mai House Live in Thailand on $500 per month

Chiang Mai House – $200 per month

I have also met others who were renting for as little as $100 per month. Great deals like this take a little more leg work, but they are available.

Food and Entertainment.

A meal at a street vendor can be had for as little as $1 per plate. These little food kiosks are set up all over the city so they are easy to find with plenty of options to choose from. One of our favourite meals consisted of:

  • 2 wonton soups $2,
  • Plate of stir fried vegetables $1,
  • 3 barbecued squid $2,
  • 2 large soda waters $1

Total = $6 for two people.

wonton soup Live in Thailand on $500 per month

Wonton Soup In Thailand

One of our favourite restaurants, Kuhn Churn offers a vegetarian buffet with dozens of items, including drinks and dessert for $4 per person. It is very easy to find great dishes in all types of restaurants for $2 to $4.

One of our biggest expenses was for espresso in various cafes where we worked. A latte or cappuccino will cost $2 to $3. Alcohol can also add a lot to your budget, with large beers going for about $3 and cocktails up to $6 in some trendier bars or restaurants.

Fresh coconut water, from a coconut cut open in front of you can be found for $0.50 to $1. Fresh fruit shakes go for $0.65 to $3.

Other Expenses

Thai Massages

One of my favourite parts of Thailand is the inexpensive massages. It is possible to get a one hour massage in the markets for $4, with higher end places charging $10 to $15. My wife and I tried to go for a couple of massages every week.

Visa Runs

Unless you are over 50 years old and have a retirement visa, you will have to leave the country regularly to renew your visa. We had the 60 visa, so we didn’t have to leave, but for longer stays, there are people who leave the country every 15 days.

You are not supposed to be able to do this indefinitely, but I know of  people who have left the country dozens of times without incident. There are bus tours set up to do visa runs for less than $50, however if you were doing this twice a month it would definitely add to your expenses.

Thailand Living Expenses

Here is a summary of our expenses in Thailand for 2 months including 7 days in Bangkok, which is much more expensive.

  • Rent $630
  • Hotel (6 nights in Bangkok) = $180
  • Return Airfare: Bangkok to Chiang Mai $280 for 2 people
  • Thai 60 Day Visa for two: $80
  • Food and Entertainment: $1141
  • Local Transportation: $124
  • Other: $305

Total = $2740

“Local Transportation” includes all the taxis, trains, tuk tuks and other public transportation in Bangkok and Chiang Mai.

tuk tuk Live in Thailand on $500 per month

Tuk Tuk in Thailand

“Other” includes purchasing a table and chairs for our patio, cleaning supplies, clothes, sight-seeing admissions, massages and regular swims in our hotel’s pool at about $1.80 each time.

We also spent $437 on dentists because my wife and I also had some major dental work done, but this amount is not included in the total.

Can you Retire on $500 per month in Thailand?

Overall, our expenses were $1370 per month, which works out to be $685 per person. It is not quite $500 per month, but we aren’t far off. On our next visit, we will stay longer and possibly even fly directly into Chiang Mai, which will lower our total costs substantially.

As a retirement destination, or even a short working vacation, Chiang Mai offers great food, entertainment and weather, all at a price that won’t break the bank. There are decent internet speeds at most cafes, great live music, a growing art scene and countless expats and travellers to meet up with. My wife and I will definitely be going back to Chiang Mai later in the year.

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My name is John Bardos. My wife and I gave up our business, house and possessions in Japan to search for more meaning and fulfillment in our lives. We've discovered that a satisfying life is about rich experiences, quality relationships and meaningful contribution, NOT consumption.

59 Responses to Live in Thailand on $500 per month

  1. Amazing.

    Oh how I dream of heading back to Chiang Mai soon. You’ve just made me a little more motivated. I’m even missing the spicy noodle soup.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to provide some great photos and some good detail in regards to Chiang Mai. I’ve passed the information along to several friends that travel to Thailand quite a bit, as they will be very interested to see your photos and may have questions. I should be heading back to Thailand soon again myself, and hope to get up North on this next trip. Keep up the good work!

  3. Ash says:

    Thanks so much for posting this John as Im heading to Chiang Mai in the coming weeks to work from up until August.
    Just a quick question: how do you go about getting the 60 day visa? Is that something you have to get from a Thai embassy before you arrive?

    Hope you’re good mate!

    • John says:

      Hi Ash,

      You get the Thai visa in your home country. If you are planning to stay for longer than two months, make sure you get the double entry visa. I believe it costs $80, but it will let you stay in the country for a total of 6 months, by renewing in the country and leaving once. Have fun in Chiang Mai!

      • Pete says:

        Hi John,

        Great article and I’m looking forward to visiting Chiang Mai myself.

        I was wondering if you were able to obtain the 60 Day Visa through the Internet / Mail or did you need to visit a Thai Embassy in your home country. Thank you.

        • John says:

          Hi Pete,

          You have to go to a Thai embassy or consulate. It only takes a couple of days and it’s an easy process. You choose between single, double or triple entry visas. Make sure you the length you need in advance.

  4. neale says:

    Living well in Thailand with $500 a month is possible, my site details a month in
    Chiang Rai on $400. From what I can see the standard is about the same as yours was.
    I find $600 a month to be very comfortable.

    With regards to the visa thing it is possible to do the 14 day thing indefinitely the law was changed a few years back, and I have confirmation of this from the head honcho at immigration here in CR. As you state every 14 days is a bit of a drag unless your close to a border like we are in CR.

    If you would like to check out CR before settling on Chiang Mai next time give me a shout would be happy to show you around and help you settle in.

  5. John is absolutely correct, a single entry will get you 60 days, and then you can file an extension to get another 30 days (it costs 1,900 baht), giving you 90 days total per entry. A double entry will get you up to 6 months. Triple entries used to be given out as well, but I haven’t heard of anyone scoring one of those in a while.

  6. Michael M says:

    Great article, we were in Chiang Mai for 3 months, stuck it out through the most polluted times but were rewarded with Songkran at the end of our trip. If there is a next time I think we’d work much harder at getting better value accommodation. We ended up in the 2nd building of the place you stayed and paid approx $600 a month. I don’t really know what cheap is any more. If you’re living on savings then I don’t think I’d be putting Chiang Mai in the bargain bucket but in some ways that’s our own fault as we got tied into a 3 month contract in our eagerness to ensure I had a phone line.

    I read another article you might like by this fantastic couple we met in Chiang Mai http://www.abramsfamilyworldtravel.com/2012/04/world-travel-is-anywhere-cheap-anymore.html

    I’m still looking for the perfect place to live. Good infrastructure for telecoms and organic food, ideally close to the beach and reasonably priced. I’m guessing Melbourne is out! Do you know anything about Playa Del Carmen, I’ve read good things about it.

    • John says:

      Hi Michael,

      To get the best deals on accommodation you really need to stay longer-term and get a local to help you find the best deal. Short term tourists are easy money for landlords so the price is generally much higher.

      It depends on what standard of living you are looking for, but if you can live and eat like the locals, then living costs will easily be half of the typical short-term traveller. Like I said in the post, my uncle rents a 3 bedroom house in Chiang Mai for $200. I doubt if his expenses are much more than $500 per month. (He bought a nice truck now, so that will add another $200 per month in expenses I’d imagine.)

      My wife and I loved Chiang Mai and will definitely be going back. The pollution can get bad, but it is a great combination of cafe culture, fantastic fresh food, nice weather and a very low cost of living. Budapest is also great, but a little more expensive and winters get cold.

      For Playa Del Carmen, you might want to read WanderingEarl.com. He spends a lot of time there.

    • Playa Del Carmen has been booming since I first visited over 10 years ago. The downtown looks like nothing like it once did. Every time I go back I can’t believe how much it has grown since my last trip. I did read a post on Wandering Earl (recently I believe) where he had found a pretty cheap apartment. However, seeing what I’ve seen over the years, I just don’t imagine cheap and Playa Del Carmen will continue to be mentioned in the same sentence.

  7. steve ward says:

    Thanks john me and a friend who lives in nyc have been talking about this for a while now, he found it hard to except that you can get first world or close to it for what we would think is cheap in usa.

    I would like your feedback on the Visa’s John to me in the past 80% of countries where use to having the week long stay’s BUT since more and more people are expats? (not sure that quite describes us yet) so most country’s are wondering wait you want to stay how long now?

    • John says:

      Hi Steve,

      It is not accurate to think that you would get first world standards of living at a fraction of the price. Thailand is definitely not first world. It is great, but you are not going to get the same culture, services and atmosphere of your own country at a cheaper price. For example, Bangkok is not a cheaper New York city. They are very different experiences. I would love to live in NYC but I can’t stay in Bangkok for longer than a few days at a time. Chiang Mai is fantastic and I will probably start spending several months there every year, but again it is not the same as Japan or Canada or any other country in the world.

      Visa’s vary by country, but a general rule is that you can stay for 60 to 90 days, often with a chance to renew by leaving the county and returning. I don’t know of any countries that only have 1 week visas.
      Do your research before your travel though. Every country is different. In most of Europe you can stay for 90 days out of 180. In China, you will need to apply for a visa in advance. In Thailand you can only stay for 30 days unless you buy the extended visa in your own country. In Turkey, you pay for the visa on entry and the price changes depending on what country you are from.

  8. Anna Aaberg says:

    Love your articles! I started to live as a digital nomad in January 2012. At the moment I’m living on Malta, Europe. Love it! But the winter here was to cold for me so my plans are to stay in Chiang Mai January – March 2013. It is 25 years since I was in Thailand. It’ll be an adventure :) Will you be there? I would love to meet up and learn some more about Chiang Mai.
    /Anna

    • John says:

      Hi Anna,

      Thanks for the kind words. We may very well be in Chiang Mai in early 2013. Our current plant is to go to Asia in November and stay for 3 to 6 months. Please keep in touch.

      I have never been to Malta before, but have heard that it is nice.

  9. TravelingFirefighter says:

    Hi John,

    I’m headed to Chiangmai soon and was wondering if you could tell me the name of the placed you stayed at in CM. I’m having difficulties finding anything near that cheap online that doesn’t require signing a long term lease. Thank you very much.

    • John says:

      Hi,

      I stayed at http://www.greenhillplace.com/ It is close to Nimmanhaeman Street, but a little far from the Old Town.
      http://www.chiangmaismithres.com/ is also a popular place for expats. It is in a great location, near the Sunday night market street and old town.
      http://www.huaykaewresidence.com/ is inexpensive and in a great location, but it is getting very run down. We wanted somewhere nicer.

      I would recommend against booking online. You will find better deals if you visit the locations in person and you can see exactly what you are getting. Book a guest house for the first few days and walk around. You will find many places to rent.

  10. [...] as you please, it’s hard to overspend in Chiang Mai. Read these articles by fellow bloggers JetSet Citizen, A Little Adrift, Stop Having a Boring Life and Nomadic Notes for coverage on living in Chiang [...]

  11. Joe says:

    I’d love to live there for a few months but would have to try and find a good deal on accommodation.

    Great article.

  12. Jean Galea says:

    You should definitely check out Malta, I wrote about it recently: http://www.fitforblogging.com/malta-digital-nomad-destination/

    Also just got to Chiang Mai, and I agree with your previous comment that it cannot be compared to big cities like NYC, it’s not as simple as saying that you get the same standard of living at the same price. Sure it’s very nice here, but you’re gonna miss some things from back home. Also to get high quality accommodation you need to pay as much as you’d have to pay in countries like Malta.

    • John says:

      Hi Jean, Welcome to Chiang Mai!

      I’m not sure of the prices in Malta, but you can get beautiful accommodations here for much cheaper than most other Western countries. Also, a full-time cleaner or gardener is only about $200.

  13. jasmine says:

    Hi , came across your blog its great!! I’m looking to teach for a year in Chiang mai, although being a young austrlian girl who will be living by myself , is Chiang mai safe to live? Are the apartments to rent secure? Have you ever had your place broken into. Any info would be great! :-)

    • John says:

      Hi Jasmine,

      Chiang Mai is very safe. We see single women walking around the city alone all the time. We’ve never seen any theft or crime here, nor heard of anyone that has. I think you will find that it is much safer than your home city.

  14. arthur says:

    I would like to take a trip to Thailand but know absolutely nothing about it such as air line,what city for night life,do they speak English,can you drink their water,etc/
    Is ther a agency to guide me with information and book my flight and general information that should be known as doctors in case of emergency etc?

  15. Naomi says:

    It was so wonderful finding your website and reading about the journey you and your wife have been on. My husband and I live in Edmonton and a couple of years ago took a year off to travel. Needless to say when we got back we were changed, but everyone around us was the same. It is so hard to fit in with everyone who is still ruled by their possessions. I love your blog on “Less Stuff Equals More Experiences”. When we took the year off we sold our house and gave away a lot of our possessions. As soon as we returned we got rid of even more of the “stuff” we thought was so important to put in storage and have been working towards a Retire in 10 years plan. Well…we have been back for 3 years now and the plan quickly went from 10 years to 5 years and now we are at 4 years. Two years ago we visited Thailand for the first time and fell in love with Chiang Mai and now have the goal to retire there in 4 years. Thank you for all of the information and I hope that next time we are there we have the chance to meet and get to know you.

    • John says:

      Thanks for reading Naomi!

      Chiang Mai would be a great city to retire in. You might want to leave for a few months in April every year though. It gets very, very hot and smoggy.

      I think Chiang Rai and Pai will continue to become hotspots as well in the future.

  16. What would you consider the best way to find cheap rent in Thailand ?

    • John says:

      Hi Sammy,

      By far the best way is to go to the country and look yourself. Having Thai friends recommend a place is best, but you can still find deals on your own. My wife and I recently paid $200 per month for our apartment (Varada Place) and there are hundreds of similarly priced locations. The longer you stay the better deal you can get. Also, start your rental agreement in the off season. If you arrive in Nov./Dec/Jan. you’ll have difficulty finding a nice place and you’ll most certainly pay more.

  17. Jessie says:

    Hey, my husband and I are travelling to Chiang Mai in June and looking for an apartment similar to what you describe in this post. Would you be able to supply me with contact details for this apartment? I’d be most grateful
    many thanks
    Jessie and Steve

    • John says:

      Hi Jessie,

      Sure, I’ll email you some more information. However, if you are planning on staying there for a while. I highly recommend staying in a guest house for a week and exploring the city to find out where you want to stay. There are hundreds of properties so finding an apartment is very easy. You’ll want to make sure you stay in an area you’ll like. Most travellers like the busier, backpacker area. I personally hate that area.

      If you are renting a motorbike, location will matter less. My wife and I prefer to walk everywhere so we chose an apartment in an area where we spend most of our time.

      • Bob Naramore says:

        Hi John, my wife and I currently live in Cambodia and although we love the people, the country itself is dirty and rather ugly. We are going to come to Thailand next month(April) for a few weeks to investigate both the north and the south as possible living areas. We are both over 50 so can get the retire visa. I was about to buy a moto and a dirt bike here . Do you know anything about bringing motor vehicles into Thailand? The regulations I looked up seemed very confusing and unclear!! Your living comments have been most helpful… I am retired , but have always wanted to become more of a full time artist, I believe I’ve heard that Chiang Mai has a blossoming artist community…what do you think?

  18. Tyler says:

    Hi John -

    It looks like my wife and I are headed to Chiang Mai for a month or so spanning Dec-Jan. Like you, we’d like to avoid the noisier, backpacker area. Won’t be renting a scooter.

    Could you share a bit about Chiang Mai neighborhoods in general, with your personal preferences? (or point me to a blog post :) Wifi is a must – we just started our second year as digital nomads.

    Thanks, Tyler

    • John says:

      Hi Tyler,

      December is the busiest month of the year and it’ll be hard to find places. It’s much better to arrive in early November if you can. You’ll definitely pay more in December. There is good wifi all over the city and in cafes. The larger the building the worse your connection will be because it’ll be shared with more people.

      Santitham is my favorite area, North West of the old city, close to the mall and the trendy Nimmanhaemen area.

      I’ll try to write a blog post on Chiang Mai soon to provide more detail.

  19. Ben says:

    Hi John,

    My young wife and I are planning to move to Chiang Mai in late August for about 3 months. We are a newlywed couple and we are excited for the time we will get to spend there. We are looking for an apartment similar to what you described in this post. Would you be able to supply me with contact details for this apartment? Or some advice on what is the best way of finding an apartment/ temporary job?

    Thank you

    • John says:

      Hi Ben,

      There are thousands of apartments all over the city. The advice I give to everyone, is to rent a guest house to start and then search for an apartment after you arrive. Don’t rent anything in advance. That is the only way to ensure you’ll get the room you want in the area you want.

      You won’t find any temporary jobs. Wages are very low, so you wouldn’t want one anyway. If you need to earn money try some online freelancing or other work where you can get paid in a richer country’s currency.

      Teach is an option, but these are rarely short term positions, with the possible exception of summer camps. Korea, China and Japan offer the best summer camp opportunities.

      Good luck.

  20. brian says:

    What this article and the many others along similar lines of retiring cheaply shows, is that it is exponentially cheaper retiring as a couple. But I guess that is why many countries pay a lower pension to couples than they would for two singles.

    The advantage of sharing certain costs like rent is huge. And if trying to live ultra cheap, at least you have a companion to share time and experience.

    A couple could definately approach $500/mth. A single would need to sacrifice much more. But anymore than a couple starts adding back again. Especially kids that cant contribute to expenses but contribute to costs. Good schooling is expensive (relatively) everywhere.

    I’m keen to retire in Thailand or Philippines. Been to both. Both have pros and cons. But I’m still a few years hard work away.

    Thanks for the informative post.

    • John says:

      Thanks Brian,

      I agree that there might be some cost savings as a couple, but it’s also possible to save as an individual.

      As a single male, you can rent smaller and cheaper places without losing your sanity. Virtually, all other costs are half price so it doesn’t make a difference if you are alone or a couple.

      However, young, single males seem to spend a large amount of time and money in bars. :-) That is where the biggest expense comes from.

  21. Hugh says:

    Hi John
    just stumbled on to your blog, very informative. I have worked all around the world for the last 40 + years and not interested in retiring in the UK. Are there many guys out there with their western wife both around 65. Will be visiting next week to get an idea of the rental price range

    • John says:

      Hi Hugh,

      There are many couples of all ages, however Thailand does seem to appeal more to single men because of the sex trade. There are certain parts of the every city that are less than attractive, but my wife loves Chiang Mai.

  22. Mark Surrey says:

    John, great blog you’ve got here. I was in Thailand last year with family and we’ve been in Chiang Mai. Its sad that were only in Thailand for 2 weeks time, I wanted to stay longer. I so love the beaches. I’m planning to visit Thailand and go to Chiang Mai again. I was wondering if you can give me insights on which month is the perfect time to visit? The last time were there is December and it was quite busy.

    • John says:

      Hi Mark,

      Yes, December is peak tourism season so it’s the busiest month of the year. I think Feb. and Mar. and Sept to Nov. are great months. The weather is nice and it’s not so crowded.All the best,
      John

  23. Giles says:

    Hi John
    Great to read your comments ……it’s just great what you have done …
    Just about to head to Chang Mai tomorrow …just wondering how I would find such an apartment …where would I start to look .
    Regards
    Giles

    • John says:

      Hi Giles,

      There are tons of apartments everywhere around the city. Rent a guest house first, and then explore the city to see which area you like most. Some like the old city, some like Nimmanhaeman, others rent motorcycles and are not tied to an area. Without exaggeration, you’ll find rental signs on apartments on virtually every street. There are popular places like Verada, Smith Residence, Sunshine House, The Bliss etc., but you’ll find many gems if you explore on your own.

  24. mark scott says:

    Very informative postings. Thank you. As i am retiring soon, I am interested in living abroad. I have a question in regards to money, if living in Thailand. What’s the best way to handle it? I mean do you open a bank account there or travel with travelors checks or some other method? I would like to avoid the costly exchange fees on credit cards.

    Again, thanks

    • John says:

      Hi Mark,

      On a retirement visa, you can open a bank account here. Traveler’s checks are not widely accepted anywhere any more, so I strongly recommend against them. There are no fee international bank accounts, like the one offered by Chase, so that might be an option.

      Actually, the exchange rates offered on credit cards and bank cards are better than exchanging money on your own, so even with a $5 transaction fee, you’ll still probably be better off.

  25. Ryan says:

    My rent also comes to around $360 (12,000 baht). I know much cheaper is possible, but I feel it’s worth it for having the extra space in the apartment and a refreshing view of the mountain. There is some truth to Feng Sui in the sense that the quality of your immediate environment affects your state of mind, which includes happiness and productivity.

  26. Lars Hallén says:

    Hi John, thanks for a good article. I am heading to Chiang Mai in a couple of weeks and would like to find an apartment in the south part of the city, hopefully in Hang Dong. Do you have any ideas about where to look(like which websites to search) or do you perhaps have a contact or two that I could try out?

    Thanks
    Lars

    • John says:

      Hi Lars,

      The best thing to do is walk around the area you want to stay in and visit apartments personally. There are many apartments on practically every street so you won’t have trouble finding any.

  27. Matt says:

    Hey John,

    My girlfriend and I (along with our dog) are planning on moving to Chiang Mai for a month and then down south to the Phuket for a month.

    Do you have any idea if either Green Hill Place, Smith or other short term rentals accept dogs? He’s very small 15lbs and curious how easy that will be there? Thanks much!

    • John says:

      Hi Matt,

      I don’t think I’ve seen any dogs in rental apartments. One couple I know travels with a cat, but I’m not sure about dogs. I think it could be difficult to find a place.

  28. Jeff says:

    Thank You John! My wife and I are headed to CM too! You didn’t mention the customary terms for renting an apt there for a month or longer. Should we expect to pay it all up-front? Are security/damage deposits the norm, etc? Cheers!

  29. Collin says:

    would you say prices in thailand have substantially changed since you wrote this article in 2012

    • John says:

      Hi Collin,

      The Baht has declined recently, so I don’t think prices have changed much. They might be 10 to 20% higher for some restaurants, but it’s still very cheap.

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