Chiang Mai Confidential: A look at the local dating scene
Plentiful. Confusing. Nonexistent. Experimental. These are the words Chiang Mai’s singles used when asked to describe the Chiang Mai dating scene. As the interviews stacked up, of course I realised that dating is a very individual experience and results certainly vary, but there were themes that emerged, and that’s where our exploration of the dating scene begins. I got the idea to write about the topic while having brunch one morning with some expat friends early on in my time here. Quite innocently, I brought up the topic of dating in Chiang Mai. As the newbie in the group, and having spent a fair amount of time with an interesting, smart, and caring guy whom I’d met in my first week in the city, I felt I didn’t really know the “real” scene and wanted to learn from my new friends. I distinctly remember the incredulous clinking of forks on plates, the abruptly tabled drinking glasses, and the awkward but brief silence the moment I asked. The conversation that followed was vibrant and conflicting — it seemed no two people at the table had the same experience. I knew then I had to delve into this shadowy, sexy, and perhaps infinitely unknowable world of dating in Chiang Mai. I summoned a diverse group of singles from across my networks and got down to business — discussing and dissecting the enigmatic Chiang Mai dating scene.
Meeting and Mingling
Since slightly awkward flirting in the Internet chat rooms of the 1990s, “online dating” has sort of become a thing. Now, it is so well established, almost every Gen Y seems to know a friend or two (or many) who met their plus one online. Tinder, Bumble, Her, and many other apps and online platforms appear to be alive and well in Chiang Mai. However, when asked about where they preferred to meet, the majority of people I spoke to expressed a preference for meeting in person the old fashioned way — at bars, clubs, or just by coincidence in a public place. The social scene in Chiang Mai seems especially conducive to this kind of “chance” meeting. Dance clubs, music venues, pubs and interest-specific meet-ups seemed to be the preferred hunting grounds. However, those who worked in Thai offices and schools, mentioned that meeting dates through colleagues was a great source of both cultural learning and dates. Eric* an American teacher, mentioned that dating colleagues was also a particularly fruitful option.
In my conversations for this article, it was important to separate the quantity from quality, as the dichotomy kept emerging. Many said that while they may not have had as many dates as they would have in their cities back home, they are enjoying higher-quality, more interesting dates. Antonio, an American teacher at CMU and aspiring actor and Veronica*, an American English consultant, both mentioned that they enjoyed a higher quality of dates and hookups while they unfortunately did not have as many as they might have back home. The wide options for where to go and what to do in Chiang Mai contributed to the fun of dating here. When I asked Eric about where he tends to go on a first date, he listed a wide range of places and activities from outdoors to dinner. He also underscored that while he doesn’t date fellow foreigners, he has been able to enjoy a much more relaxed dating environment than back home in the American south, which he calls “uptight” and costly. For just a few baht, a full night of fun can be had at a roadside food stall and a walk around town. Other daters also mentioned the relaxed and fun environment for dating too. Antionio told me that Chiang Mai is a great place for experimentation. “If we’re stuck in what we want, we often overlook what we deserve,” said Nubia, an American events curator, “It’s not always in the package you expect.”
Although it’s a small community of foreigners, the more transient digital nomads and tourists provide a free flow of available dating and hookup material if one is not looking for something serious or long term. More to the point, as Antonio, Meaghan, a Canadian health and fitness consultant, and Nubia all agreed, people come to Chiang Mai for self-discovery and to build something special in their lives whether a business or a yoga practice. On one hand, this means that the transience of the city can lower the expectations of commitment and raise the availability of casual relationships, it can also mean that some people are here to focus on their personal and professional development and don’t have the emotional bandwidth or time for a serious relationship.
Hookups and everything else along the spectrum just shy of a long-term relationship appears to be in play and pretty much ubiquitous. When asked about hookup culture in town, Antonio didn’t hesitate: “Meet people in the street and the next thing you know, you’re smashing,” he said, without missing a beat. While hookups were more plentiful in Atlanta, where he lived previously, he remarked on the particularly experimental and free nature of the hookup culture in Chiang Mai. For Antonio, being an African American male in Chiang Mai has meant a certain level of exotic cache and access to the hookup culture that has meant no shortage of romantic opportunities. The lifestyle, however, can get exhausting after a couple of weeks, and the presence of longer-term expats and slow travellers makes it possible to establish and maintain two friends with benefits.
For Veronica who is well travelled, the hookup scene may pale in comparison to the city where she lived in India for a year, but she does acknowledge that if interested, there is no shortage of available hookup opportunities in Chiang Mai. She caveats, however, that while the quantity may be lower than elsewhere, the quality of her hookups have been among the highest. She credits the wide array of people one can meet on any given day in Chiang Mai as being both a source of quality romps and quality conversation.
Plenty of (Certain) Fish
The diversity in the dating scene was almost universally touted. Eric and Veronica both extolled the virtues of dating locals in order to learn about the culture in an intimate way. Not surprisingly, they also work with Thais and have a vested interested in learning about Thai culture. However, Eric as a western man, found that local women were quit open to meeting and going on dates with him. Veronica, found it more challenging, and although she has dated a Thai, attributed some of the success of their connection to the fact that her date had spent substantial time studying in America, making cross-cultural communication much easier. She did note however, that in her experiences with less worldly Thai guys, there simply wasn’t enough experience and openness to date women beyond their culture bubble.
Veronica found this diversity especially rewarding. It’s actually a little amazing that people who have so little in common initially can connect and bridge the gap across cultures, life experiences, and world views. In many ways, embracing the diversity in the Chiang Mai dating scene can be a deeply positive aspect to dating here.
But, that same diversity can be difficult when their tastes are more specific. Nubia explained how, as a business-focused, lesbian woman of colour, having entered her 40s, much of the dating pool is actually much younger than she prefers or interested in a more transient lifestyle. Her pool of eligible women, in her experience is actually quite small, making her dating life in Chiang Mai “nonexistent.” Among Thai women she might be compatible with, the cultural pressure to be married or settled down young, shrinks her pool even smaller. For Alejandro* an Australian entrepreneur with a technical background in programming, the language barrier on one hand can make it difficult for him to really click with the local girls he has dated; but on the other hand, he finds that fellow foreigners aren’t looking for something serious and are leading more transient, incompatible lifestyles. Veronica added that she is reluctant to date among her small expat culture group because everyone knows everyone. She prefers instead to date expats from all corners and Thais, because it is a broader pool. Eric* prefers dating only Thais because of the transience factor with fellow foreigners and what he sees as sharing with Thai women a better alignment with his personal values.
Strings or No Strings
One insight from Meaghan and Alejandro resonated quite personally. Because the dating scene is so international, expectations are never clear: On one hand, this allows people to define for themselves what their relationships will look like — borrowing from local culture and each other’s — but can also add a level of confusion. Meaghan shared a story that, after a fun couple of days and a magical connection with a vacationing Brazilian that resulted in things getting physical, her intended messaged a few times on the third day then, without warning, suddenly blocked her from the messaging platform they were using. My own experiences here also underscore that dating in Chiang Mai can be an exercise in culture clash Olympics, mixed in with the usual train wreck qualities of dating life. There was the Athletic Aussie who arranged a surprise date at a swanky rooftop restaurant for sunset, but with whom I spent as much attention to understanding his quirky colloquialism as to his rugged charm and sun-tanned calves. Then there was the Disappearing Scottsman who messages me about once a month since I’ve arrived in Chiang Mai but apparently has no intention of ever meeting me…I guess pen pals are still a thing? The Idris-Elba-look-alike who was charming, built like an underwear model, jaw-droppingly handsome, and believed women should not work once they were married and that good girls don’t travel. Basically, I was the devil before date three, which is actually a record for me; it normally takes the fifth date! And I’d be remiss not to mention the most confusing date yet — the shy but definitely not innocent Thai guy who promptly asked for an expensive gift after one date.
I asked our daters where they like to go on first dates. Answers ranged from “the bedroom” to simple walks around a neighbourhood and all the more traditional options in between, like dinner and drinks. One element of a great first date that nearly all mentioned was to find a place where good conversation can happen. That means, not too loud or too distracting, but also not too boring so that there’s nothing around you to talk about when the inevitable lulls in conversation happen and where you both can feel relaxed and where the pressure is not any higher than it already has to be. An element of fun, like going hiking, often helps ease things along.
With my interviewees at hand, it was the perfect time to ask for what you may be thinking right now. Advice. The overwhelming response was to be available, transparent, and open and use the diversity in Chiang Mai’s dating scene as an opportunity to broaden your perspective and experiences. Although dating apps received mixed reviews, with the best mentioned being Tinder and Thaifriendly, our daters were unequivocal that there’s no substitute for putting yourself out there and being bold enough to meet people the old fashioned way. Many of our daters encourage taking on an expat mindset to broaden your experiences beyond just dating or hooking up with tourists or whoever your usual circle may be, and to join meet-up groups that represent your interests and hobbies. There were mixed reviews for dating apps among our interviewees. Whoever you date, and however you do it, one final piece of advice seemed to be most appropriate for the wildly diverse dating experience in Chiang Mai, courtesy of Antonio the University teacher from the US: “If you find someone with a heart, it’s important to not take that lightly. There are a lot of people who don’t use them as frequently as they should.”
An asterisk (*) denotes that a name has been changed.