Chiang Mai is Not for Everyone.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard someone say in passing, “Everyone loves Chiang Mai.” Each time, it makes me wince — because it’s not true.
Not everyone loves Chiang Mai.
YIKES! Someone finally said it.
I can understand why people would think that everyone loves it. Chiang Mai is home to a sizable travel blogger community, and as a result, receives almost universal praise. Those who love it are very vocal about loving it.
Do you think many bloggers, especially new bloggers, want to challenge that? I didn’t. Last year, I wrote truthfully about my experience in Chiang Mai, but steered clear of critical commentary. I still felt like a newbie blogger and I didn’t want to lose the support of more established, Chiang Mai-loving bloggers.
Time has passed. Now that this site drives most of my income, I should be more worried about what I say here; ironically, having so much more at stake has given me the greater confidence to speak candidly.
To start, let me tell you all the wonderful things about Chiang Mai.
Good Reasons to Live in Chiang Mai
It’s cheap. While Thailand is cheap to begin with, northern Thailand is the cheapest part. You can live in a great, modern apartment with internet and cable TV for less than $200 USD per month.
There are lots of Western amenities. The internet is excellent, the hospitals are quite good, you can find many Western products, and there are many Western and ethnic food options, including the elusive Mexican food.
There is so much culture. If you love festivals, this is a great city. Songkran is reportedly better here than anywhere else in the country (though I can’t imagine anything better than Songkran in Bangkok!), and the Yee Ping lantern festival is beautiful. Plus, there are tons of cooking classes and treks you can join.
The weather is cooler. If the Bangkok heat is too much for you, Chiang Mai is in the mountains, where the weather is much more bearable.
The street food is amazing. Chiang Mai is my favorite city in the world for street food, and the street stalls at Chiang Mai gate every night are amazing.
There are tons of expats. You won’t have to look far for an expat community, and the travel bloggers in town have a special community.
And still…I didn’t quite get it.
On paper, Chiang Mai looks pretty damn perfect. But paper wasn’t enough — I wasn’t feeling the magnetic pull that so many travel bloggers before me had felt.
Every now and then I see a traveler about to leave on a trip and say, “I might stay in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for a while.” For no reason other than the fact that lots of travel bloggers stop there.
So many bloggers have waxed poetic about Chiang Mai that I think it’s time to get some alternate views out there. Here are the things not to love about Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is isolated.
Want to go somewhere different? You’ll have to fly via Bangkok. It’s either that or spending twelve hours on a bus or train to get to Bangkok. You can fly to some international cities, like Kuala Lumpur and Kunming, but these are quite limited.
There are some nice northern towns, like Pai and Chiang Rai, as well as the undervisited ruins of Sukhothai, but to go elsewhere overland, you’ll be traveling for several hours. Overland visa runs more or less demand Laos visits, and it takes just as long to get to Vientiane as it does to get to Bangkok.
Chiang Mai is far from beaches.
If you moved to Thailand because you love beaches, Chiang Mai is one of the worst places you can be. If you want to get from Chiang Mai to a beach, you can fly to Phuket or to a few other beach towns.
If you’re going by bus or train, it will take you one 12-hour bus or train to Bangkok, followed by another 12-hour bus or train to the Andaman Coast or the Southern Gulf Coast. The beaches on the Eastern Gulf Coast are slightly closer — 18 hours or so by bus as opposed to 24.
Chiang Mai is FILLED with creepy old men.
All over Chiang Mai — from visiting the temples to strolling the markets to sitting in restaurants — you see older Western men with young Thai women. While I don’t mind these relationships in general, I DO mind them when the girls are young enough to be their grandchildren and the men speak to them like they’re babies.
Is seeing these relationships just a part of visiting Thailand? Absolutely. You see this throughout the country — but after traveling extensively through Thailand, I can say without a doubt that it’s more prevalent in Chiang Mai than anywhere else I’ve been, including Bangkok.
At least in Bangkok it’s mostly confined to certain neighborhoods. In Chiang Mai, it’s everywhere — not just its designated neighborhood — and the girls seem to be far younger. It was Chiang Mai that inspired me to write my post, Young Thai Women and the Western Men Who Love Them.
The strange thing? Though I’ve talked about this with some of my Chiang Mai friends (some of these men are their neighbors), I haven’t read one blog post that references this facet of the city.
Chiang Mai has no edge.
This last part is the most significant factor to me, yet the most difficult one to articulate.
When I visited, I kept thinking to myself that Chiang Mai was nice, Chiang Mai was pleasant, Chiang Mai was peaceful. And it bored me out of my mind.
I tried to see more of Chiang Mai. I explored different neighborhoods. I tried all the markets. I had a memorable night out at some wacky bars.
Could I have done a better job of filling my time in Chiang Mai? Could I have scheduled more activities and spent less time working? Of course. But I don’t think my opinion is irrelevant.
The thing is that the extreme nice-ness of Chiang Mai made me realize that I need to live in a place with an edge — somewhere a bit more difficult, somewhere a bit less forgiving. Somewhere with a bit of drama, somewhere that pulsates.
I started to explain to one like-minded travel blogger. “I think I’d be happier complaining about the traffic in Bangkok–” “YES!” he cut me off. He knew exactly what I meant before I even said it. (That’s yet another secret — some of the travel bloggers who have lived in Chiang Mai feel the same way I do!)
Some — though not all — of the people I know who live in Chiang Mai like to put down Bangkok on a regular basis, citing its pollution, traffic, and heat. Sure, Bangkok is a big city, and God knows Bangkok has its problems.
But Bangkok is one of the most fascinating, electrifying cities I’ve ever visited. Every day is starkly different than the one before. There’s something charging through the air that you would never be able to find in Chiang Mai.
Living in Thailand
If I were to settle in Thailand for a while, it wouldn’t be Chiang Mai. I would probably choose Bangkok, one of my favorite cities in the world, or a beach community — likely either Ao Nang or Koh Lanta.
The difference is that Ao Nang, Koh Lanta, and especially Bangkok have an edge to them. They have a dark side. Hell, even on peaceful Lanta, I ended up spending the night with the Thai Mafia!
My advice to those of you considering visiting or living in Chiang Mai:
Keep an open mind. Don’t think that because so many travel bloggers love Chiang Mai, you need to love it as well. It wasn’t for me and it’s not for everyone.
Listen to your heart and not just your mind. Sure, Chiang Mai is cheap, and easy, and home to tons of expats. But does it make your pulse race?
Think about it.
Thailand is a fantastic country, and there are so many great places to live. Explore enough and you’ll find the place that’s right for you.