As most of you probably know, Motoko and I are in Chiang Mai again. Here are some pictures from the main square in the city called Tha Pae Gate. This will give you a glimpse of what it looks like in the most touristy area of the city. Many people email me to ask me if Chiang Mai is really as good and as cheap as everyone says. Well it is. This is such a fantastic city on so many levels. Take a look at the pictures and then scroll down to the bottom and I’ll tell you why.
Orientation to Chiang Mai
The old city of Chiang Mai is a square area surrounded by a moat and brick walls that were built more than 700 years ago. Most of the walls have been torn down, but the corners and 4 main gates on each of the sides are still in tact. The Eastern gate, called Tha Pae Gate, is shown below. This is the heart of the most touristy area of the city. There are endless hotels, hostels, restaurants and bars only a few minutes from here. There are frequent events of all types held at that square. Every Sunday there is a large night market that starts from this square and goes on for a couple of kilometers into the heart of the old city.
Khom Loy Lanterns for Good Luck in the New Year
Thousands upon thousands of rice paper ballons with a combustible material as fuel are launched into the air at night. In November, we had the opportunity to attend the Loi Krathong or Yi Peng festival where tens of thousands of lanterns were all launched at about the same time. It really is an amazing spectacle to see thousands of these meter high glowing lanterns rise into the sky.n
No Alcohol, Unless You are Police
It’s funny that alcohol wasn’t permitted around Tha Pae Gate, but we saw uniformed police officers drinking beer in bars around the area. I hear that bars must still bribe police for ‘protection’ and alcohol on occasions like this are part of the payment.
Too Many People for Us
The crowds were insane, so we went for higher ground. Starbucks has a 4 story cafe right on the corner with the best views of the celebration. As you can see, McDonald’s is also in the area so the third world is not as exotic as you may imagine.
Not your Grandma’s Thailand
When I first visited Thailand more than 16 years ago, it was a very different country. Now there are western style shopping malls in every major city, US franchises have invaded and locals are carrying iPhones and iPads. Thailand has become a full on consumer society in less than two decades. That has brought major traffic problems, pollution, environmental destruction and skyrocketing personal debt levels. Unfortunately, developing countries are adopting everything that is bad about our own cultures at a frenetic pace. The future doesn’t look good.
Is Chiang Mai Really That Great?
Pollution and traffic are major problems in the city and they are only getting worse, but overall, Chiang Mai is as good as everyone says. You don’t want to be here in March and April when farmers burn their rice husks. The air becomes terrible. Even now, you will see many people, including Motoko, wearing masks around the city. (I keep forgetting mine.) This is a developing country after all, so you have to accept a level of dirtiness and pollution. However, everything else makes up for it.
Why I Love Chiang Mai?
- It’s possible to rent an apartment for as little as $150 per month. $400 will get you a really nice place. If you rent for six months or more, you can get a house for $300 to $400 per month.
- Our cleaning lady works longer than 3 hours to clean our entire house for $10.
- Street meals can be had for a $1. Our favorite all-you-can-eat buffet costs $6 with high quality desserts and drinks included.
- A taxi from the airport is generally less than $5.
- We can get around the city in the red taxi trucks for $0.60 per person.
Some of my favorite cafes in the world are here. Great lattes can be had for about $1.50 in a trendy cafe with a good internet connection to work.
The food and fresh fruit shakes are inexpensive and delicious. Thai food is some of the best in the world and there are also many great Mexican, Italian, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Mediterranean, etc. places if you are craving something else. Whatever you want is here at about one quarter of the cost of home.
There are great live music venues that are dirt cheap. Motoko and I go out to live houses to listen to great Jazz, Blues and Heavy Metal several times per week. Some of the musicians here are world class. Our lifestyle here would cost $10,000 plus in most cities around the globe.
There is also a burgeoning art scene here. There are many great architects, artists and other creative types around the city. Chiang Mai is definitely a Creative City. I love the hand drawn art style that is very common in design magazines and at trendy restaurants and cafes here.
Motoko and I are far past our partying days, but it’s very exciting to be in a city that comes alive at night. Street vendors pop up all over the city with small outdoor food stalls that always make this an interesting place to be. Every day feels like a festival. It’s just nice being around so many people all the time that are enjoying life. I don’t know of any other city in the world that has this level of human connection. Those shared experiences are what life is about.
This is definitely one of the safest cities I’ve ever been in. (Other than Japan of course.) Even a single female is unlikely to have any trouble walking around the streets at night.
Motoko and I prefer to walk almost everywhere we go, even if it’s 10 km away. Walking is great exercise and let’s us really see the city close up. With everything near the core of the Old City, this is a fantastic walking city. There are few sidewalks, traffic is crazy and pollution is terrible on main roads, but overall this is a great place for pedestrians. There is so much to experience every day.
Digital Nomad Capital of the World
There are endless travellers, bloggers and digital nomads that come through the city so there are always opportunities to meet up with like minded people. There is no other city in the world that comes close as the Digital Nomad Capital of the World.
The fact that it is hot all year round doesn’t hurt either. I like snow and can put up with cold, but 6 months of winter can get pretty damn depressing.
Chiang Mai Rocks, but Maybe Not for Long
Overall, Chiang Mai is a fantastic city. We spent four months here in 2012 and will be here for another two months in 2013. I highly recommend visiting here soon. I don’t think the city will fare will over the next decade as traffic and pollution intensify. It’s already getting over-crowded, the road networks were largely designed for horse traffic centuries before cars existed and there are no subways or other large public transportation systems. Pollution is already getting unbearable in the core and the city is showing no signs of slowing down. With new shopping malls and condos springing up all over the city, I’m afraid that Chiang Mai will not be an attractive destination in years to come. Sadly, I think this is the fate of most rapidly developing cities around the world. Economic growth is the only consideration until it is too late.
Great post John, and very useful to help me what to expect :)a
Spot on John, it’s my first experience here and I agree with all your points. I’m also worried about the sustainability of this city. This is probably one of the best times to be here, as you get a great combination of Western amenities and comforts, plus a strong dose of Thai culture. However 5/10 years from now it will probably be over-developed and heavily polluted, if there won’t be any drastic changes in between.
Happy New Year my friend! Keep being an inspiration 🙂
Many people are worried about what will happen to Thailand after the King dies. This may become a very politically unstable country if there is a power struggle to take control.
See you next month! It will be great to see you again.
Good article. I have lived here for over 7 months now and it truly is amazing every day. I have even tried to leave several times now and came back because I missed it so much. I do share your concerns about the future though. All the best in 2013!
“No Alcohol, Unless You are Police”. Not only that…. the police were pouring shots for anyone that wanted one 😉
How are you doing? I haven’t seen you around recently.
Hey John, you have literally convinced me to visit Chiang Mai very soon man.
It’s a bit pricey for me living in Mexico though, I just did some research and the cheapest flights from my location over to CM are $3K and that’s just one-way.
After getting married on November, I told my girlfriend I wanted to walk the world for at least one year and then look for a place to finally settle down so if I manage to convince her to go there for a while, that means $12,000 only in transportation.
It’s way out of my budget right now but I’ll still try to figure this out.
Anyway, thanks for the great content man, really appreciate it!
Fly through the US. You can frequently get flights for less than $1000 from places like LA or SF. However, if you are in Mexico, you might not have much reason to leave. I’d like to spend more time there as well. 🙂
Exactly what I was going to say. Plus, they now have a direct flight from San Francisco to Bangkok, which will be great for our next trip!