Chiang Mai is at the top of most Digital Nomad lists. The reasons are obvious as the city, especially its Nimman area, is well set up for remote work.
Luxurious condos are available at an affordable price. You can find cheap and delicious food everywhere. Finally, the weather! We just spent the month of November in Chiang Mai and it was beautiful weather every single day. The sun was shining. The temperature was 28 - 29 Celsius degrees or, in other words, very pleasant. Even in May, when we were last there, it rarely got too hot to be outside.
We love Chiang Mai as we could get a lot of work done there while enjoying a healthy lifestyle - as healthy as it gets for digital nomads.
You might think now that I got the title wrong, but I didn't. Even though I enjoyed staying in Thailand's northern city a lot, there are things there that are not perfect. You might want to know them too if you are planning to stop there.
1. Little space for walking, running or cycling
It is not uncommon in South East Asia that when you got to a city you just have to stop walking. Pavements are rare, and if they exist, they are often taken up by convenience stores or food stalls. Parks are even rarer and do not have the same "free public space" quality as the ones you find in Europe.
As far as I know, Singapore is an exception to this rule, but Chiang Mai is not. Checking Google Maps, you can count the green areas with the fingers of one hand. There's a mighty mountain range outside the city, but it's not somewhere you can go for a stroll from your flat.
I like to run. Running keeps me sane, and running in the park brings me so much joy. Unfortunately, the second option was not quite available.
In the Nimman area, there's the Chiang Mai University campus , a rare exception with spacious and green outdoor areas. You still have to share the path with other vehicles whizzing round. I wouldn't feel safe running there.
One day, we hired bicycles to explore. Roads are busy and have no separate lane for bikers. It was nothing like cycling in Amsterdam. We tried to get inside the campus of Chiang Mai university for it offers some space and quietness, but the pedal from one bike fell out so we had to come back, again on the exhausting roads.
To be fair, those roads weren't as busy and chaotic as ones in Bangkok or Hanoi. However, after spending three years in Amsterdam, I've lost my confidence and patience even for such roads and took the lack of space for outdoor leisure activities to heart. Feeling deflated after the day we tried to cycle, I diligently got back to the building's gym, twice a week. It's harder, though, to run 6KM on the treadmill than 10KM outside.
This was my view for 40 minutes, every time. Very few people went swimming when I was there. Now and then, a pigeon would come, take a sip of water and fly away. That was it. The idleness bored the hell out of me.
I missed being in the park, missed seeing other runners or even getting wet in the rain. Don't get me wrong, I was lucky that we got a nice gym right in the building so I could go running regularly, but I long for the road. The heart wants what the heart wants, right?
When you feel too caught up in the city's life, go away for the weekend to the nearby mountain.
Doi Su Thep is only 40 minutes away. I saw many travellers climbing up the mountain on a moped or even a bicycle. If you are not road shy, it could be an amazing adventure.
We went to Doi Nui, a peak higher and further than Doi Sui Thep for two days with our Thai friend Win. Camping on the edge of the mountain, we overlooked Chiang Mai and its thousands of lights. In the morning, we hiked to the summit at 1,600 meters, walked along a ridge where clouds hang on both sides, beneath our feet. The final stop was a Hmong Village, a peaceful little place.
Protip 1: Be prepared as the car journey could be nerve-racking with steep climbs, sharp curves and narrow roads. If you suffer from car sickness, take a pill.
Protip 2: Make sure you get a guide who can speak English as there seems to be a lot of stories on these mountains.
Our guide talked a lot, but only in Thai and our friends were not the most dedicated interpreters so we must have missed like half of the information, a real shame.
2. The signs of inequality
You can pay so little, like €1 euro for lunch in a food court, and you can also pay a lot. There is this beer place on Nimman road, where they sell a lot of imported beer. Some bottles are priced more than 1,000THB, which is 25EUR. The majority of the beer bottles cost 500THB, so over 12€.
In Amsterdam, where things are famous for being expensive, you would pay 8€ and get a very decent craft beer, and you don't do it all the time.
Looking at how packed the place was on a Friday night, I couldn't help wondering how many people are willing to pay that much money for a treat. When we were there, the majority was Westerners. Perhaps if they earn in dollars and euros, not in Thai bahts, and they would be fine with such price. Personally, I just don't feel comfortable seeing so much differences putting so close to each other.
We went to one supermarket for breakfast stuff, fruits and so on. When I first saw some Clipper tea boxes on the shelf, I was exhilarated. I love Clipper teas and use to horde them in the cupboard in Amsterdam, for when I feel like treating myself.
In that Chiang Mai's supermarket, a box was sold at 450THB, though. It was more than 11 EUR, four times or more the cost in the Netherlands and England. More ridiculously, I found a Sri Lankan blend of tea, whose box contains the same amount of bag as a Clipper's one, but it's priced at 49THB.
This article from the Guardian will tell you the difference in taste and price of the English Breakfast blends they found across supermarkets in England and you will see how outrageous the nine-fold gap is in Thailand.
I am not saying I have a fix to this prevailing problem in many parts of the world. However, we would prioritise buying locals and try to go without our favourite treats if consuming them means encouraging more carbon footprint and widening the economical gap.
3. No Public Transport
The closest thing to public transport in Chiang Mai is the red cars.
We read somewhere that they have a fixed route and you can jump on to get somewhere en route. However, there's no standard price and most of the time, the driver is willing or would rather take two people, instead of 10, to any place the guests want as long as he receives the same amount of money. It is not quite the point of public transport, is it?
Tuk tuk is another way to get around. They offer more comfort than the red cars, but they are very expensive, at least for tourists like us. We found they are the most expensive means of transport, perhaps because we are not any good at haggling.
Our fix was to rent a flat in the Nimman area where we could walk to as many food stalls as we need. When we really needed to go further out, we ordered an Uber - which was cheaper than Tuk Tuk, by the way.
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