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 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
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.
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