Temporary residents seek respite in Chiang Mai, but aren’t interested in staying long-term

Just passing through Chiang Mai - a the nomads that come and go.

By | Tue 27 Nov 2018

“Chiang Mai” means “New City”, and to over 15 million visitors each year, it is just that: a new city. Tourism to Chiang Mai has risen by 14% annually since 2011, with most visitors falling into one of two categories: those passing through for a few days on a larger tour of Thailand, and those looking to resettle from their home countries. It’s easy to understand the draw for short-term tourists and long-term expats to come to the New City, but there is a budding third group of foreigners in Chiang Mai: those making it a temporary home for just 1-6 months.

As digital, location-independent work becomes more widely available travelers are taking their jobs on the road, choosing to experience new cultures with their flexibility. Digital Nomads are permanently relocating to Chiang Mai in droves. It currently holds the #2 spot of Best Cities for Digital Nomads according to NomadList.com, the go-to resource on digital nomad life around the world. Chiang Mai has earned its spot (which actually dropped from the #1 position in the past year) based on it’s low cost of living, high internet speeds, walkability, and nightlife. It’s so popular, in fact, that more than half of all 6,315 registered digital nomads on the site have claimed Chiang Mai as their homebase.

As enticing as Chiang Mai seems to be, some freelancers and online entrepreneurs prefer to travel indefinitely instead of making any one location home. Travelers wanting to take full advantage of their flexibility spend a few days to a few weeks in new locations, fitting in minimal working hours between sightseeing and adventure. This way of life is often cheaper than maintaining residence in their home country and allows for achieving the universal dream of seeing the world.

Life on the road is exciting, but exhausting. Chiang Mai provides a centrally-located respite from the traveling storm for individuals and families making their way through Southeast Asia. Tamara Wallace, an American travelling full-time with her family, says, “We thought this was a good time to ‘settle down’ for 3-4 months. We had heard so many good things about the city that we decided to make it our home base for a bit.”

Those exhausted from the constant whirlwind of traveling through new countries can find all the comforts of home in Chiang Mai’s diverse food, shopping, and residents while still experiencing a new culture. Foreigners appreciate the orderly traffic patterns and familiar brands available in Chiang Mai, with the added benefit of close proximity to stunning rice paddies, waterfalls, and mountains. To many wanderers Chiang Mai strikes the perfect balance of routine and culture; urban and rural.

Ty and Emily Kuresa even chose Chiang Mai to begin their family travels around the world. “We knew we wanted to travel around Southeast Asia to begin our family adventure due to low cost of living and amazing culture. Chiang Mai provides a great mix of old world mystery and culture with the new world comforts of a developing country. It was a great choice to begin our family travels.”

Unfortunately for those wishing to make Chiang Mai a temporary home, most local resources focus on travelers coming for a few days or those staying 12 or more months. Chiang Mai then becomes a frustrating city for slow-travelers to navigate. Housing, for example, is available to singles content with sharing common space for a week at a time or those willing to sign a 12 month lease. Finding a furnished full home on a temporary basis can be harder to do here than in other cities around Southeast Asia due to the high demand for interim and permanent housing.

On the trouble of finding housing Wallace says, “We had been looking online to get some housing booked for our family of 6. We have heard for months now that it’s dirt cheap and super easy to find housing, but we couldn’t find anything on our own online. The places we contacted on our own all responded that they would only consider a 1-2 year contract. Usually we can find a great deal for a month-long stay, but we found the prices on the pretty high side.”

It can be equally daunting to find transportation or schools. Temporary residents are left with the options of relying on Grabs to run daily errands or to rent or buy a car, and to find schools willing to accept students on a month-to-month basis. These are often accompanied by a hefty price tag which travelers to Southeast Asia may not be prepared for.

While world-class food, local products, and massages run a fraction of the price as in more developed countries, the monthly living expenses rack up for short-term visitors. Month-to-month housing for a furnished, 2-bedroom unit costs 20,000B and up, a monthly rental car costs between 17,000B and 23,000B, and an English-speaking international school costs around 22,000B.

Luckily modern travelers can turn to the power of social media to help find viable living options and social support. Over 30,000 people belong to various Facebook groups dedicated to helping foreigners navigate life in Chiang Mai. A quick query in the right group can lead to homeowners willing to rent units for shorter periods of time, advice on the best grocery stores or markets, which schools accept enrollment month-to-month, playgroups, and even help finding a date.

Wallace believes that making the right connections once in the city is essential to successfully living in Chiang Mai. Her family was eventually able to rent a home short-term because their realtor, who arranged a shorter lease with their landlord, was referred by a new friend. “How you find things the first day you set your feet on the ground here I don’t know. My suggestion is to find something decent for a week and then get out and socialize!”

Ben O’Brien has made valuable connections once in Chiang Mai through MeetUp. “I’m an Amazon seller and I try to join or start a MeetUp for other sellers in every city I stay in. I started a MeetUp in Chiang Mai that now meets once a week. I’ve found more like-minded entrepreneurs in Chiang Mai than anywhere else in the world. I’m forging lifelong business relationships and friendships in the two months I’m here.”

With all the modern conveniences and social opportunities available in Chiang Mai why, then, are some travelers willing to make the effort to arrange short-term living, but not interested in the arguably easier route of staying for one or more years?

One traveler, Randy Leskie, makes an annual trip to Chiang Mai from Canada every year. He escapes Canada’s harsh winter by spending two months in Chiang Mai, but says he’s not interested in staying longer. “We come to the heat for my arthritis, as well as the healthy eating options and massage. But things are never simple. We are not keen on being here during the burning season and have some reservations about making such a large commitment in a country that is not democratic.”

The ease of living in Chiang Mai is actually a deterrent for some. While Chiang Mai boasts over 300 Buddhist temples and amazing Thai food, hard core travelers are left wanting even more culture. Wallace explains, “It’s an easy city. If you are looking for somewhere to do the digital nomad thing, somewhere to live like you did in a westernized country to some extent, then this is a great city to choose! If you travel for adventure, for as much cultural immersion as you can get, then I’d say stop in for a few days and then move on.”

Others fall in love with the New City but have long-term travel goals which prevent them from a longer stay. O’Brien explains, “ A month or two is the perfect amount of time to build strong professional and personal networks that can last for a lifetime. It’s also an outdoor adventure haven, which allows me to play hard when I’m not working. I’m in the middle of traveling the world now, but I’d love to come back and spend more time here.”