Why Chiang Mai is the Best & Worst Place for Digital Nomads (Depending On Your Situation) - Phil Hawksworth

Why Chiang Mai is the Best & Worst Place for Digital Nomads (Depending On Your Situation)

Chiang Mai is pretty much Digital Nomad Mecca. It tops most people’s list of the best place for a Digital Nomad to live and work, and for good reason. I’ve spent about 6 months of this year in Chiang Mai and it is great. I have written about it my time there before: here.

It’s (very) cheap, weather is great most of the year, the people are friendly and speak English pretty well. It’s also a very easy place to integrate in to and feel at home. There’s lots of expats and the Thai people are generally accommodating of foreigners, so you don’t really feel like an outsider.

It has an abundance of coffee shops – perfectly suited for working, and plenty of culture and nature around when you want a weekend trip.


Depending on where you are at in your business and personal life, it might be the absolute best place you could possibly be…or the absolute worst. Let’s explore why…

Chiang Mai digital nomad co-working space

One of Chiang Mai’s many co-working spaces

Chiang Mai Digital Nomad plus points

Let’s look at the plus points of Chiang Mai first. This conversation focuses on it’s viability as a place to base yourself to build/run your business. It’s an entirely different conversation from it’s merit as a travel destination or somewhere to look at temples (which is has many of (and they all look the same)).

Chiang Mai cost of living is very cheap.

This is the biggest thing it has going for it, and here is why.

Because it is so cheap to live in Chiang Mai, you can try things. You can afford to fail and know that you’re not going to be homeless. When I lived in London, just my food cost as much as my entire cost of living in Chiang Mai. And that’s eating almost all my meals cooked by me. In Thailand I eat out every meal.

My rent in London was 10 times what it was in Chiang Mai. A monthly tube pass costs 2.5 times hiring my own motorbike and buying gas…you get the picture.

If your business is new, you’re just launching or you haven’t even started yet; the low cost of living is a huge safety net. It allows you to throw caution to the wind, because you really can’t lose. You can invest everything in your venture. You can put all of your time in to something that you know may not bring an immediate return.

With just a couple of grand saved up, or doing a few hours of freelance work you can cover the cost of living in Chiang Mai and focus everything else on building your business.


My Chiang Mai story

When I arrived in Chiang Mai in January, I had no business. I had no idea what I was going to do at all in fact.

I was burnt out, fed up of Personal Training, sick of having a diary and being it’s bitch. I liked working with clients, but the obligation of being in a certain place, or even on the phone at a certain time, was cutting in to the freedom that I so highly value.

With not a huge amount of money saved up, I was able to take some time off and travel for a few months before really settling, and then start to figure my shit out. I needed to do this. I needed time away from the constant push, push, push of building a business. The opposite of Chiang Mai – London – where I spent the past 5/6 years makes you work like a dog, even if you don’t want to, you have to because cost of living is so high.

I’m so grateful that I was able to do a bit of freelance writing and pay my way in Chiang Mai while I regenerated and got back in to drive mode, figuring out what my next move would be. It was the start of the next phase of my life, which I probably should have done 18 months earlier.

When I’d figure out what I wanted to do going forwards, I was able to do this. I didn’t have to sell my time coaching people any more. I was able to put all of my energy in to building a scaleable business that is actually bringing passive income. I could do this because I only needed to work about 30 hours a month on freelance jobs to pay the bills. Leaving me all of the other time to work on my own stuff.

I can invest days and weeks in to building a product that I know is going to pay off down the road, without worrying about it paying me today. You could write a book (or twelve – as I intend to do next year). You can build a membership website (as I have this year). You could build a blog and write e-books (as my friend Will did, who’s post here inspired this one).

All sounds great – so what’s the problem?


Chiang Mai Digital Nomad Negatives

Chiang Mai cost of living is very cheap.

I know, that was listed as the single primary positive. How can it be a negative?


For a number of reasons, and how important these are will depend on both your personality and where you are at in life right now.

Life in Chiang Mai is too easy.

You don’t have to do a whole lot of anything to get by. It can definitely make your lazy. If you’re not a man on a mission, with a clear vision of where you are going – the temptation is going to be to say “why bother?”. I did this for a while, but I knew it would never last, I’m too driven. It was a regeneration phase that I badly needed. However, I know that I am more self-aware and driven than most people and that an ‘easy life’ is often appealing.

You don’t have to do anything to ‘be successful’ in Chiang Mai. This can be dangerous because the laziness (totally encouraged by the Thai way of life) conditions you to think that it’s ok earning $1,000/month. It’s plenty in Chiang Mai…but you’re going to be stuck there. You can’t travel or go home on that kind of money.

I knew a girl who – no word of a lie – filled in surveys on the internet for a dollar a go. That is how she paid to live there! It’s not that she didn’t have any talent or ability to do something more useful for the world…she just didn’t have the confidence. There was no external pressure to push her out of her comfort zone and do it anyway, because you can live in Chiang Mai from filling in surveys on the internet.

It takes some resolution to keep focused on your goals and not get sucked in to that lazy life. When I actually got down to work, I stopped socializing with both travelers and Thai friends for the most part. I had a few like-minded friends I would see now and then, and that was all.

I would work, go to the gym, eat and sleep. That’s that. I am naturally introverted, so tend to ostracize myself from most people when I want to get stuff done or just need alone time anyway, but I saw my friends do the same thing. You isolate yourself and for all intents and purposes could be anywhere in the world – you’re not doing anything that required being in Thailand. (You could say you’re not making the most of being in Thailand).


People in Chiang Mai

Most of the Digital Nomads in Chiang Mai aren’t going anywhere. They fall in to the trap of being lazy and getting by on Thailand money. It’s full of wasters, basically. They’re not bad people, they are just not driven.

They are goofing off because they don’t want to work a ‘normal job’, rather than having any great desire to build a business and be successful. I picture most of them back home getting a 9-5 in a year or two when their adventure is done. They’re not all in, by any stretch of the imagination.

You aren’t going to meet many people who will be useful in a networking/masterminding sense. Nor will you meet many people who are a level above you, killing it, and motivate you to step up and go to the next level.

Now this is a generality of course, but I write from the perspective of comparing Chiang Mai to other place in South East Asia. I didn’t write this when I was in Chiang Mai, because I had nothing to compare it to. Now I do.


Other alternatives in South East Asia for Digital Nomads

Working by the pool in Bali


I’m in Bali right now as I write this. Bali is better, it has a higher cost of living and most of the people here are doing pretty well for themselves. However, the expat scene is skewed heavily to people living here and working locally as yoga teachers, alternative health practitioners and the like.

There’s people working online of course, but not the same numbers as elsewhere. So Bali is a good alternative, but the wifi sucks.

#thirdworldproblems when you chase wifi around, buying a coffee and realizing the wifi is down – do you drink it and leave? Try and work offline? Take the afternoon off? You know going to the next place and getting another coffee is going to leave you too buzzed…

I like Bali, but I don’t think I would base myself here long term, purely because of how bad the wifi is. Perhaps it will get better in a couple of years?


I still can’t get my head around Bangkok. The place is just a cluster-fuck.

I like it, but only in very small doses. It quickly becomes too hard to get around and I just couldn’t deal with the disorganized-crazy on a daily basis when trying to get shit done.

Other people love it, so perhaps you can integrate in to the scene there and get to grips with it?


Right now I lean towards Saigon as the best place in South East Asia for Digital Nomads.

Saigon is the place I’ve been where people have their head screwed on and you will meet actual winners, people who are building successful businesses. It has the perfect blend of being cheap and easy, as is the rest of Asia, but developed and thriving enough to keep things moving forwards.

It’s a totally different vibe in the cafe’s of Saigon compared to Chiang Mai, and one that I think is more conducive to success.

There is a much higher chance of meeting people who might be useful for your business or just masterminding in Saigon.

I’m heading there next year for a while as it has the perfect big city vibe without being complete chaos that I find Bangkok to be.

Where should you base yourself?

It really depends on your personality and where you are in life. Do you have your head screwed on, a clear mission, and need the cheap cost of living to get things flying…great, Chiang Mai will be perfect for you.

If you need to be pushed by your peers, you tend toward laziness and ‘just doing enough’, or you don’t work well without having other people to bounce ideas and mastermind with…you might want to look elsewhere.

Chiang Mai is great and I really enjoyed my time there. In fact I’m going back for a while next week. I just don’t think it is the best place to base yourself if working is your goal. It’s a city that is very easy to live in, but not a city with a great deal of opportunity or money changing hands.


Getting started on your journey as a digital nomad? 

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  • Hey Phil!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on CM! I hear what you are saying as I wrote a similar post called, ‘If You Can Make It In Hawaii, You Can Make It Anywhere” b/c life is too good that you don’t want to work!

    CM is one of the places I want to stay for a month this year, hence my search and interest in your site. FinancialSamurai.com has been around since 2009, so the revenue and all that is established. Do you think CM would be a fun place for me to go and just have fun while writing 3-4X a week and publishing my digital living adventures? I really want to really take advantage of my lifestyle business, but so far, the most I’ve traveled a year is 10 weeks.

    BTW, I can’t comment on your site via mobile due to not knowing my DISQUS, and not bothering to try. You might get more comments if you use a none wall comment system where one has to sign up since 40% of traffic is now mobile.



    • Hey Sam, thanks for the comment- didn’t know you couldn’t comment without logging in. I’ll look in to that, thanks.

      Chiang Mai is an awesome place and a really beautiful city to live. I love it as a city, so yeh definitely visit.

      I think as a city for the entrepreneur, especially without an established business, it has its downsides. Cheap isn’t the solution to every problem, you know.

      I think its reputation as digital nomad heaven is founded only on the fact it’s about the cheapest city in the world with reliable wifi. That’s great if that’s all you need. If you’re already established, etc.

      I would be lying if I said that wasn’t a big attraction for me.

      Many who are coming up would do well to be around other people who are successful and in a productive environment.

      When do you plan to visit?

    • Hey Sam, thanks for the comment- didn’t know you couldn’t comment without logging in. I’ll look in to that, thanks.

      Chiang Mai is an awesome place and a really beautiful city to live. I love it as a city, so yeh definitely visit.

      I think as a city for the entrepreneur, especially without an established business, it has its downsides. Cheap isn’t the solution to every problem, you know.

      I think its reputation as digital nomad heaven is founded only on the fact it’s about the cheapest city in the world with reliable wifi. That’s great if that’s all you need. If you’re already established, etc.

      I would be lying if I said that wasn’t a big attraction for me.

      Many who are coming up would do well to be around other people who are successful and in a productive environment.

      When do you plan to visit?

      • Hola Phil, I can comment on my laptop b/c I guess my Disqus is cached and therefore I can comment straight away. But on my mobile, there is no guest comment option, and I’ve gotta try and log on via Twitter, but it asks for my disqus pw, so I don’t bother b/c I don’t remember.

        Any recommendation on the best time to go? I went to Angkor Wat last May/June and it was hot as hell!

        • Now is the best time. February/March they start burning crops and it’s super hazy. Then it’s stupid hot and then rainy season around July.

          Nov, Dec, Jan, Feb are best months

        • Now is the best time.

          Feb/March they start burning crops and it’s really hazy. Then hot as hell April/May. June, July is pretty nice, then it gets in to rainy season.

          November – February is best

          • Mate, you still there? Or are you in Saigon now? Funny I forgot I commented on this post a year ago and just revisited today to leave a comment.

          • Saigon currently. Probably go back to Chiang Mai in a couple of months

  • Hey Phil,

    Great post agree with all the points on Chiang Mai and glad to see you on mission. Outside of my first month where I let go and partied its been head down and work. As you say many people will tell you thats not gettting the full benefit of thailand and they’re right, but these are the same people who are living off of filling out online surveys. To succeed in the future requires sacrifice in the present. I love living in the sunshine but for the most time that is the view from my window while I’m inside working.

    Its interesting to see your points on saigon, if they offer a no hassle long term visa I would definitely look into it as a permanent option. Right now I’m leaning towards BKK when my visa runs out in Feb or getting a 1 year ed visa in chiang mai. The phils also has a good visa situation where you can stay indefinitely without much hassle.

  • I was considering the Philippines for a few weeks before I go to Vietnam but I’ve heard the Internet is horrendous…

    You can get a 3 month visa for Vietnam, pretty much the same as Thailand was before they changed it recently

    • Michael Bushe

      The way to do the internet in the Philippines (and it is horrendous) is through some excellent coworker location in Manila and Cebu and rent an AirBnB with a 8Mbps or better line from SkyCable, PLDT Fibr has plans to “50”Mbps (half), but even that is only like 95% uptime.

  • Chris Warner

    I completely agree with the above.

    I stumbled across your article on Kuala Lumpur and then saw this one on Chiang Mai. I landed in Thailand last week after moving out of my flat in London (Putney) because I’m trying to focus on building a freelancing career and do a bit of travelling.

    I’m in Chiang Mai currently and headed here as you’re right, it is the “Mecca”. I’m pretty disappointed for exactly the reason you outline in the article: it is just so easy here. I think after years of living in London I need to be somewhere a bit bigger, a bit faster, and a bit tougher so I’m heading down to BKK tomorrow.

    I’ve only seen one other article that doesn’t entirely fawn over CNX and her problem was that it doesn’t have an “edge” which I get and probably agree with. From what I know and hear of Bangkok, there shouldn’t be trouble finding any there!

    I’m considering Kuala Lumpar once I leave Thailand because of the three month waiver afterwards hence me finding your other article.

    Anyway, great website and I agree with all the above!

    Cheers, Chris

    • Hey Chris,

      I came from London too. It was amazing in Chiang Mai for a while, but I basically took a few months off because I was burnt out, and was very grateful for the ease of life.

      Once I settled back in to building a new business I kinda got sick of Chiang Mai. Whenever I go to big cities I’m so productive. There’s definitely something about the energy of a city.

      I’m heading back to KL for a month or so, then going to Saigon for a while. The whole live on the beach ideal of working abroad doesn’t lend itself to great productivity in my experience. KL is a cool city, I like it there much more than Bangkok

    • Thumbs up on KL! Cheap, great food, friendly folks. I lived in KL for 4 years as a kid and love it. The scuba is great too on the east coast.


  • Dennis

    I’m curious what people think of Seoul, South Korea or Beijing compared to Chiang Mai/Bangkok/Kuala Lumpur, etc. I’ve been reading about digital nomads in Southeast Asia, but it seems like Seoul and Beijing are usually left out of the discussion. Why is that?

    • Hi Dennis. I’ve lived in Seoul for the past 16 years. I’m not a full-time digital nomad, but I am slowly building an online income. I would not choose Seoul as a digital nomad location. It’s expensive. Rent and food would kill you. Have you ever paid $25.00 for a watermelon (no exaggeration), plus you would have to be here on a tourist Visa. That would make it very difficult for you to hook-up internet, or get a cell phone. The weather is not that great either. The summers are brutally hot and humid, and the winters are bitter cold.

      • Dennis

        I didn’t know that – thanks for your reply Nancie! Doesn’t sound like an ideal place for digital nomads.

  • Excellent article! You put into words exactly what I have been thinking for the last several years of living there. I feel like a big fish in a small pond and I don’t even consider myself that successful online yet. I have found it very hard to find anyone who is highly driven and who inspires and pushes me forward. So it is time to move on and BKK and Saigon are the two cities at the top of my list.

  • Alan Smith

    Disappointed by Chiang Mai so far, I didn’t expect it to be as horribly polluted and chaotic as it is. Yes it’s cheap here, but you can find places almost as cheap in the south – I personally don’t care whether chicken fried rice costs 35 baht or 50 baht. Also the internet is poor in many hotels and even coworking spaces. In addition I’ve never been to a city with the airport right in the middle of the city, the constant roar of these planes all day is annoying. I think Chiang Mai must have comparable pollution to Chernobyl! 🙂

  • Bran

    This article touched on everything I have always thought about Chiang Mai.

    After living in Los Angeles for a year, I was blown away by how far my dollar would go in Chiang Mai. I became obsessed with lowering all of my costs although I never made it to the $1000 a month mark that many seem to be able to do.

    Several months later, I fell into the trap of being more concerned with lowering expenses than developing more income. Chiang Mai cost of living is great if costs need to be temporarily lower while money is being used productively in a business.

  • Phil, great point about lazying out b/c CM is so easy and cheap.

    Try to do so in SF or London and damn, the fire to hustle just erupts! When I left my day job in 2012, damn I was motivated not to starve by just focusing on my online business. I’m sure if I was in CM I wouldn’t have the same drive to produce.


  • Rich Tweten

    Great post! However, what about the visa situation? Can you stay in the country with a particular visa which doesn’t require you to work for a local company?

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