Similar sized cities, similar cost of living, in neighbouring South East Asian countries. Which is better to live in, Chiang Mai vs Siem Reap?
Context: I work online, the ability to easily get work done, along with general lifestyle are the two deciding factors, for me, on the quality of a city.
For example, I enjoyed some of the Thai islands, but non of them were really suitable for working long term, apart from Koh Samui, so I would never consider spending any length of time there.
I’ll start with a quick ‘quality of life review’ of each and then a comparison.
My quality of life in Siem Reap
Siem Reap was an interesting city. I enjoyed my time there and liked the city, however I couldn’t see myself living there long term.
I spent one month in Siem Reap and observed the following good and bad points:
Siem Reap the good:
- Rent was very cheap and the buildings in the city centre were generally almost western standard. I guess the French built most of them.
- Alcohol was very cheap and the beer was good.
- The gym was very cheap and very good.
- Cambodian people are very friendly.
- Getting around was easy and everything was pretty much situated within a 10 minute walk.
Siem Reap the bad:
- It’s seedy. Walk around Pub St area at night and you will be offered drugs, hookers and have little children trying to beg/scam you every 2 minutes.
- It’s dusty and half the roads aren’t properly paved. I bashed my toes up a few times.
- There is not a big expat scene and only a couple of good coffee shops.
- Food is not very good and expensive compared to other places in SE Asia.
- The nightlife is fun, but very limited in scope. You have essentially the same night, repeatedly.
All in all, I enjoyed my month in Siem Reap, but I’m not in a rush to go back.
My quality of life in Chiang Mai
In total I’ve spent almost 3 months in Chiang Mai, split over a couple of trips back. I’m currently living here for 2 more months.
I’ve observed the following good and bad points:
Chiang Mai the good:
- Amazing expat, coffee shop and co-working scene
- The best food I’ve had in SE Asia and the cheapest too
- The perfect size city for my taste – Bangkok is too big and hard to get around, but anything smaller I get bored and claustrophobic quickly
- There is an abundance of high end bars, restaurants, malls etc. as well as the typical SE Asian street food, markets, etc.
- Thai people are fun and friendly, easy to make friends with and nice people
Chiang Mai the bad:
- Burning season is a killer
- Alcohol is expensive compared to other parts of SE Asia
- The gyms are pretty expensive
- Being more spread out makes getting home after a night out more of a challenge
I LOVE Chiang Mai and really had to nitpick to find the bad things, and still didn’t manage the 5 points that I came up with for all of the rest.
Living in Chiang Mai vs Siem Reap
Personally I always think that the kind of lifestyle you lead skews those charts. Chiang Mai is in theory cheaper, but the gym and alcohol are much more expensive. Alongside coffee, after food and rent, they are my two main expenditures. So for me, it is not such a difference in price.
Lets do a head to head in some key areas:
Accomodation: The average quality of building is probably better in Siem Reap, but Chiang Mai has more options, especially nicer options. I will say a draw as it depends on what you are looking for.
Food: Chiang Mai by a long, long way. Much tastier, more selection and cheaper.
Nightlife: While Siem Reap is cheaper, their is much better options and way more choice in Chiang Mai. For more than a couple of nights, Chiang Mai is the winner.
Gym: These two cities are actually home to two of my favourite gyms ever. The Angkor Muscle Gym in Siem Reap and Crossfit Chiang Mai. Siem Reap is cheaper, but Chiang Mai has more selection of gyms. I will have to call this one a draw.
Coffee: Chiang Mai has the best coffee culture I’ve ever experienced. Locally grown, extremely tasty coffee and there are almost as many cafes as there are people in this city. All with little quirks and cool designs. I would put Chiang Mai up against anywhere in the world for the coffee scene.
Working space: Again, Chiang Mai has the best scene I have ever experienced. All of the cafe’s have fast, reliable internet and there are about 10 dedicated co-working spaces. Siem Reap was good on this front, but with only a couple of options, Chiang Mai is the winner.
Expat scene: Chiang Mai is he ‘home of the digital nomad’. I hate the term, but it’s definitely true. There are lots of expats living here, as well as a constant stream of backpackers passing through. One of the biggest disappointments for me in Siem Reap was the very limited number of expats. Befriending backpackers tends to lead to partying a lot and not doing ‘normal stuff’ with friends. Chiang Mai is a much easier place to make (semi) permanent friends.
Local friendliness: I think both are very welcoming and friendly countries. Cambodian people are probably more smiley and friendly, but I don’t have any Cambodian friends, where as I have a bunch of Thai friends. I think we just have more in common and it is easier to connect on a deeper level. Win for Chiang Mai.
Culture: I think Cambodian culture is still growing and reinventing itself after the genocide and the level of poverty leaves a lot of people focused on surviving and not much beyond that. I love Thai culture, so this has to go to Chiang Mai again.
Language: The Cambodians speak English better than the Thais do. I actually don’t know any Cambodian words as they all just spoke English by default. Some Thai people don’t speak English at all, and many not beyond the functional level of taking your order or fulfilling whatever service they offer. Siem Reap is better in this regard.
Environment: Burning season aside, Chiang Mai is very picturesque with the surrounding mountains. Siem Reap I found to be a bit dirty and dusty, but to be totally honest, I never actually left the city. The further development of Thailand with proper paved roads makes me enjoy it more though. For any length of time, that level of lack of development becomes tiresome. Chiang Mai wins.
Transport: Tuk-tuks are the only option in Siem Reap, they are a good option, cheap, easy and abundant. However in Chiang Mai, you have tuk-tuks, as well as the red trucks (which are super cheap), proper cabs if you want to go far and you can hire scooters from £2 per day. Driving the bike yourself is definitely the most fun way to get around and the most efficient through the traffic. Chiang Mai is better on this front.
Safety: I never came across any issues in either place, but the general vibe of Chiang Mai is safer. Siem Reap is shady, where as in Chiang Mai, you would have to go and find the trouble. Chiang Mai feels safer to me.
Shopping: The night market is better in Siem Reap, but malls are better in Chiang Mai. I will call this one a draw as it depends what you are looking for.
Cities general vibe: If i had to describe my feelings of the cities vibe in one word…
Siem Reap: seedy
Chiang Mai: love
So, as you can see, that is a pretty resounding win for Chiang Mai.
My general feeling is that Siem Reap is a good city, that is growing and will continue to get better. However in almost all of the key areas for me, it cannot match up to Chiang Mai and it really is not even close.
I think I must profess my love for Chiang Mai.
Want to be 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.