Chiang Mai is an awesome city to live as an expat and especially as a digital worker, with it’s endless coffee shops and co-working spots. There is a distinct split between where predominantly the tourists/backpackers tend to hang around in the Old City and where the expats tend to hang around the Nimmanhaemin area. Not to mention all of the other areas of the city, if you are looking for something a little quieter or a bit more authentically Thai.
So what are the pros and cons of each area and which is the best place to live?
My opinion is it depends on what you value. I know that some things are of greater and lesser importance to different people and that will influence the best choice for you.
I lived in the Old City for about 2 months in total. It was the first place I lived in Chiang Mai and the first place in Asia I had been apart from 6 days in Bangkok where I flew in to.
I think the Old City is definitely a good place to begin if you are new to Asia. It is much more western oriented. It’s whole shtick is tourism and you will see as many western faces as Thai. This will smooth the culture shock of adapting to life in Asia, in my opinion.
It is a super easy place to meet other westerners as it is full of travelers, but not the easiest place to make long term friends, as everyone tends to pass through for only a couple of days.
Thai food is abundant and cheap, but the western food is typically expensive and not very good. Great for street food and cheap/street food restaurants, not so good for nicer restaurants.
The Thai people are friendly; they almost exclusively work in tourism, so that is to be expected.
Housing is limited for long term stay. There are guest houses on basically every street, but not many houses or condos for longer term rental. It’s not a place that is set up to be settled in.
Navigation is easy as you’re in a big square so you will never get very lost and you can always just go around the moat to navigate if you don’t know the back street shortcuts.
Nightlife is typical backpacker fare, it’s fun for a while, but gets old if you’re around long term.
It’s not the best place for working, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, you’re surrounded by backpackers and if you’re making friends you tend to get pulled along going out at night and doing tourist stuff, rather than sitting down to work. Secondly, the facilities are not great for working. There is not the abundance of cafes with good seating and wifi that you find elsewhere in Chiang Mai.
The Nimman area is home to the majority of expats and westerners living in Chiang Mai medium-long term, and the high-society Thai people. I’ve lived here for about 6 weeks thus far and it is where I currently reside.
This makes it the place to be for almost unlimited living options, from cheap to five star luxury. Classy restaurants with both Thai and western food that is better but significantly more expensive than you will find in the Old City.
The coffee shop culture around Nimman is insane. There must be as many coffee shops per square mile as anywhere else in the world, with some of the best coffee I have ever had. The vast majority have good seating and free wifi, usually housing a mixture of Thai students and expat digital workers, grafting away.
You will also find various dedicated co-working spaces that are set up even better for productive work and also a place you will meet like-minded westerners, if you are a digital worker. The standard of wifi is excellent and this is definitely the area that is most conducive to working online.
Personally I think it is harder to make friends in this area, the Thai high-society are much more closed off than the rest of the population. not to say you can’t make friends because you absolutely can, but it’s not as easy.
Couple that with the fact that the westerners here are typically busy going about their work instead of just travelling, and probably already part of an established social circle, people are just not as open. If you have social skills and try to make friends, you will easily, but it won’t just happen by proximity like it does in the Old City.
The other main downside of this area for me is the lack of cheap restaurants and street food. There is a very limited supply of cheap everyday restaurants and the street food is more expensive, has less variety and is usually only available at night. Contrast to the numerous food markets around the Old City serving excellent, cheap food all day.
The standard of living in this area is very high and you will be able to find western standard, even equivalent of very high standard western living, but expect to pay near western prices. I’ve been in some very luxurious condos that are nicer than where 90% of my friends live in England.
If you want a western standard of living with Thai weather and people, this is the place to be. Expect to pay more for everything in the Nimman area.
Other parts of Chiang Mai
Other parts of Chiang Mai are ‘more Thai’, inhabited predominantly by locals and not set up for tourists. It’s generally quieter than the Old City or Nimman, but there is variety; from the areas close to the Old City and Nimman which are just as built up and lively, to the countryside and quiet little streets on the edges of town.
Some of my favourite parts of Chiang Mai are in these other areas, but I think if you are new to the city you are best exploring yourself and seeing which areas you vibe with.
I wouldn’t recommend settling in these areas right off the bat, rather, get a feel for Thai culture, learn basic language – to get by ordering food and laundry etc. – make some Thai friends and know your way around a bit.
After spending some time in Chiang Mai, I have found it is a very small city and these ‘local’ areas become more appealing as I look for new experiences and adventure. There is only so much time that I can spend in the same coffee shops and restaurants, with the same people, before I get claustrophobic – but that is my personality.
Where should I live in Chiang Mai?
My recommendation would be:
- If you’re new to Asia, or want a base to explore from initially, start in the Old City
- If your main focus is work, or you want a higher standard of living choose Nimmanhaemin
- If you want more authentic Thai, explore the surrounding areas and make your choice based on which areas of town you feel most at home in
EDIT** I’m moving place right now and a friend just linked me to this awesome post Chiang Mai Apartments for under 10,000 Baht – Thanks for writing Christopher, really helpful.
Want to become a digital nomad?
If you’re chasing the location independent, digital nomad lifestyle make sure you don’t make these common mistakes that I’ve made, and seen people make over the last few years.
You don’t want to end up going broke, having to go home, not adapting to your new life, or being lonely. You work so hard to achieve your dream lifestyle, not making the most of it would be crushing (for me at least).
Check out How to Fail as a Digital Nomad – The checklist for what NOT to do on your digital nomad journey.