More laid back than Bangkok and less touristy than Phuket, Chiang Mai is, to many, Thailand’s premier digital nomad destination. Where some Asian cities struggle to achieve an easy alliance between old and new, indigenous and international, Chiang Mai succeeds with flying colours. Here, myriad Buddhist temples, street vendors and festivals stand side-by-side with shopping centres, Western food outlets and cinema complexes with effortless ease and grace. Add to this the glorious climate, ubiquitous Wi-Fi, low cost of living, and the stupendous natural beauty lying just beyond the city limits and you soon get a clear idea of why Chiang Mai’s allure is so potent.
If you are an online worker with persistently itchy feet then it may well pass that you too will find yourself heading for the delights of Chiang Mai one day. Should that be the case, you may well find some of the following snippets of information to be helpful, as you can never be overly informed when it comes to living and working in Southeast Asia.
Most Westerners visiting Thailand are allowed to stay for a maximum of 30 days (when arriving at airports) and 15 days (when crossing a land border) without requiring a visa. In nearly all cases, these privileges can only be extended for a maximum of seven days, an arrangement which is far from ideal for most digital nomads’ needs.
In general, obtaining a two month tourist visa from a Thai consulate - either in your country of residence or from one of the Thai consulates in surrounding countries like Laos, Malaysia and Cambodia - in advance of travelling is a far better option. Applying for a double entry tourist visa is an even better bet as it will enable you to stay in Thailand for up to six months by getting extensions via the tried-and-tested means of doing a ’visa run.’ This basically involves leaving Thailand - usually to visit Myanmar - when the first element of your double entry visa (or your 30 day extension, if you’re smart enough to visit the Chiang Mai Immigration office beforehand) is due to expire, and then returning the same day in order to activate the second entry of your double entry visa for 60 more days (which itself can be extended again for yet another 30 days at the CMI office).
In theory, you can do this as many times as you like, thus perpetuating your stay in Thailand for as long as you want. However, this is far from set in stone (some people get refused new visas for no discernible reason) so it shouldn’t be relied upon too much. As well as Myanmar, many digital nomads these days visit Vientiane in Laos to facilitate their visa needs as it is only an overnight bus journey away from Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is an easy place to find digs in as there are always loads of decent accommodation options available. It is often the case that visitors intending to stay for a relatively short time (less than two months) find it most beneficial to opt for a serviced flat, or agree a suitable monthly rate with a guesthouse. These small, one room affairs usually come with air-conditioning and Wi-Fi, although, they rarely include kitchen facilities (you may get a fridge if you’re lucky).
Your choice of potential properties becomes greater when you are looking to stay in Chaing Mai for a longer period of time, (up to six months, for instance) as most better quality flats require lettors to stay for at least three months. These properties have separate bedrooms and kitchens - some even have swimming pools - so they cost more to rent (although you will probably be able to negotiate a better price if you commit to a longer stay). If you arrive in Chaing Mai with a plan of staying for a prolonged period of time (six-to-twelve months, say) then you’ll find prices a lot more affordable, perhaps even to the point where renting a house is an option. It should be noted that most utilities aren’t included, and that houses tend to be located farther away from the city centre.
While short-term flats and guesthouses can be found easily enough by just walking the streets, it is often better to use established local estate agents, such as Chiang Mai Properties, Sathioga, Open Realty, and Chiang Mai House to find longer term options. The compact nature of Chaing Mai means that choosing one particular neighbourhood over another is less of an issue than it is in most other cities.
As mentioned above, Chiang Mai is a relatively compact city so getting from A to B is pretty straightforward. Walking is undoubtedly the choice way of getting around as Chaing Mai – like so many other Asian cities – is best savoured on foot. Cycling is perhaps the next best option, although renting a scooter is not that much of a step up either. It should be noted that the traffic in the city centre can be pretty full on these days (and it’s getting worse all the time) so you really should feel competent on a scooter before you try and start zipping around on one.
Tuks-tuks are also available, as are songthaews, red communal transport options which work along similar lines to the Turkish dolmus, i.e.flag one down, tell the driver where you want to go and - if it’s going that way – you’ll get invited to jump in with the other passengers and pay a pittance for the privilege. Taxis aren’t really an option as they tend to base themselves at the airport (a 10-minute drive from the Old City).
Ask any digital nomad who’s been living the life for a while what their top five cities are to live and work in, and chances are Chaing Mai will feature somewhere near the top: it really is that good. To have so much available in such a relatively small area, and to be able to enjoy it all at such modest living costs, really is nothing short of astonishing.
And did I mention the food..?
Are you currently living and working online in Chiang Mai? If so, please take a few moments to share your own digital nomad experiences with us in the comments box below...