Chiang Mai really is the darling location of globe trotting Digital Nomads and it’s not hard to see why. Plentiful cheap accommodation (and I mean seriously good value) is pretty much available year around. The dining scene on the face of it is broad, as is the nightlife.
The café scene is also hopping with many good places for the Digital Nomad to hang out and connect. Shopping is also wide ranging too. The climate, well for half a year anyway, is pretty good if you like hot days. It’s cool enough to turn your air conditioning off at night, which is a big positive.
The airport has frequent connections all over Thailand and some international destinations too. There is transport in the city, but as you will read later this is it’s real undoing though.
There is an expat scene as well as a traveller scene of course, in fact the city has a very international feel and many parts of the Old Town is basically an extension of Bangkok’s tourist ghetto, Koh San Road.
WHEN TO GO
Best time weather wise is November through to March. March / April you have to put up with the smog from fires that are burned around the city by farmers. May through to October is hot and you’ll be glad of your air-con. This is also the wet season.
GETTING TO CHIANG MAI
It really couldn’t be easier, there are many flights from Bangkok and other Thai cities. The airport is well served by a number of airlines. There are some international flights too mainly to Southeast Asian hubs like KL and Singapore. Increasingly China is a direct destination.
The train station is well served with trains from Bangkok. The overnighter ones are particularly good value when you consider a night spent on the train is a night not spent paying for a hotel.
I am not going in to specifics too much as there are heaps of resources online to help you plan your trip to Chiang Mai.
GETTING AROUND CHIANG MAI
This is my biggest problem with Chiang Mai. If you are not prepared to risk your life using the roads on a motorbike or bicycle then be prepared to walk everywhere or be ripped off by the transport mafia that rules the city.
There is basically no public transport to speak of, the red sangtheuws that splutter along filling the air with poison all day are perhaps as close as you will get to a public service, but if you are not Thai you will certainly be over charged.
Tuk-tuks are everywhere but they are very choosy who they pick up and as a farang you will be paying a whole lot more than a local will. Most of the time they are sitting asleep in the back of their Tuk-tuks rather than providing a transport service.
Uber is starting to take off in the city, so perhaps there is hope for the future.
Well there aren’t many. Walking around has always been my preferred mode of transport but Chiang Mai is quite spread out and can be a nightmare to walk around.
Firstly you have uneven side-walks everywhere and in many cases no sidewalk at all. So expect to be watching where you put your feet all the time unless you want to turn your ankle.
Secondly, crossing roads in Chiang Mai is a challenge and can be as unsafe as riding motorbikes without helmets. Traffic will not stop for you at any crossing apart from one or two in the Old Town, and even then it’s not guaranteed. I was almost run over by three local girls on a motorbike despite the little green man said it was safe to cross.
In my opinion Chiang Mai has some serious transport issues. I guess while the nation remains at the wrong end of the corruption index, these issues will probably remain longer than your average senior expat living out his twilight years in an alcoholic haze.
CHIANG MAI ACCOMMODATION
I cannot fault the accommodation situation in Chiang Mai other than to say there is probably too much choice! Obviously this topic has been extensively covered elsewhere so cannot add too much apart from these random tips.
No need to book ahead, in fact there is little need to book ahead anywhere in Thailand unless you are travelling for a short duration between Xmas and New Years. Just because a booking website says a hotel is full doesn’t mean it is.
Most hotels only allocate a small proportion of their rooms to online bookings. In Chiang Mai, having not pre-booked means you can have a good look around inside the rooms and then negotiate. This should always be done in Chiang Mai where supply exceeds demand.
In relation to the dire transport issues, it would be worth staying somewhere near to where you’d like to be, unless you are happy to risk your life on a motorbike, like the many farang who believe they are above the law by not wearing helmets.
In terms of areas then I guess this is personal choice. Many nomads seem to like it around the Nimmanhaemin Road area but as far as I could see it’s mainly geared to Thai students. It’s also not walkable from the centre.
The old town is tourist central, in fact I’d say it’s pretty much the same deal as Koh San Road, perhaps a little more mellow.
As for other areas, you can refer to to the countless Chiang Mai guides out there.
CHIANG MAI COFFEE SHOPS / WORK SPACES
Chiang Mai’s other perceived advantage as a digital nomad hotspot is the cafe scene which has exploded in the last few years.
SOME TYPICAL DIGITAL NOMADS…
Firstly the coffee is very good, which is kind of important if you like your coffee.
So there are a few online guides to coffee shops online but this one http://www.nomadicnotes.com/travel-blog/chiang-mai-cafes/ is particularly extensive although a little out of date now. Half the problem with writing guides to places in Asia is that local businesses close down so often, particularly cafes and bars.
Anything owned by an expat in Thailand is bound to have closed down by the time your Lonely Planet is starting to look tatty.
I investigated a good few of the coffee shops listed above and from the ones that are actually still there I found universally the following to be true.
Many of the coffee shops are very small. Maybe it’s me but I hate small confined work spaces and can no way be productive in them. Also sitting outside is a big no no for me when I am working.
Part of the reason I don’t like small coffee shops is due to being under the constant gaze of the owner or overly enthusiastic staff, who unless you buy the entire stock of the stale food on display, won’t leave you alone. I have found this to be true everywhere not just Chiang Mai.
So that leaves me only feeling comfortable in larger coffee shops that are more impersonal. If I am in a coffee shop not to work then I love the small places but the reality is I want to be productive.
Sometimes I end up in places like Starbucks or Gloria Jeans because once you have collected your coffee and batted away the annoying up-selling, they generally leave you in peace. Occasionally the staff may come around and offer you free samples which is fine by me.
There are shared work spaces in Chiang Mai. I did have a look around some of the more well known ones, but similar to my experience in other countries, they are generally full of overly sociable nomads who sit around and do nothing other than chat. If they perhaps worked a little harder then maybe they could afford to live somewhere other than Thailand?
CHIANG MAI DRINKING AND DINING
There is a wide range of food places but I find the drinking scene pretty dull after a few weeks. You have at one end traveller type places filled with 20 something Scandinavians or the seedier areas designated for the 50 plus early retired gentleman.
Chiang Mai seems not to offer too much in-between and remember this is the second city of a nation of 70 million plus people. Yes the too cool for school nomads may go on about Nimmanhaemin Road as the place to be seen but unless they are under 18, they’ve probably missed that boat.
ANOTHER POOR NIGHTSPOT
The dining scene, well it’s not bad but again it’s easy to tire of it after a few weeks. Trying to find food in Thailand that isn’t fried to within an inch of it’s life is a challenge at the best of times. Chiang Mai is no different unless you are prepared to pay for supposedly organic fare at some of the yoga style restaurants.
I guess the majority of the Chiang Mai Nomad crowd will be in some disagreement to what I have written. This could be the first time anyone has offered a different view of the Chiang Mai Nomad scene.
For that reason alone I should probably be applauded (and yes we are all different).
P.S. You are not obliged to take this post too seriously 😉
MORE CHIANG MAI RESOURCES
Recent articles on digital nomad life in Chiang Mail
Why you should always take out travel insurance for Thailand
— UnwireMe.com (@RichPolanco) April 4, 2014