How an Expat Buys Groceries in Chiang Mai, Thailand to live better and cheaper!

BigCKeeping stocked up with our groceries the right way in Chiang Mai requires us to be more “Thai-Like” and adapt to our new home country, and we end up eating healthier for a lot less money that back in the States.

A Vegas friend of mine asked me about grocery shopping in Chiang Mai (CM).  If you go by the images on some travel shows on TV or exotic travel magazines, you would think expats in Thailand must resort to eating roasted cockroaches or some other weird food.  So I am here to tell you that at least for living in the bigger towns and cities of Thailand that is all a bit of a myth.  You can find those strange food things, but that is not the regular fare when you live here.

Thailand has supermarkets full of the processed poisons and potato chips just like Safeway we are all used to back in the USA.  There are a lot of choices in Bangkok (BKK), and many in CM, and at least one in almost any good sized town in Thailand.  The most plentiful supermarkets in CM are Big C, a French owned supermarket that carries the low end lines, ala’ Walmart style.  There is also a membership store that tries to copy the style of Costco (doesn’t quite make it to that level, though) called Mackro, where you can buy in bulk to save some money.   And then there is Tesco-Lotus, the British grocery chain that is similar to Big C, but perhaps a little step higher in quality and with more selection. In BKK, there are several other chains all over town as well.

These stores have just about all the stuff you would find in a typical American supermarket, with a few major differences:

  1. Prices are higher for Western food products (peanut butter, olive oil, spaghetti sauce, etc.) than in the US.  Sometimes, it is substantially higher in price.
  2. Common Western products come in smaller containers than found in the US.
  3. There is a much smaller selection between brands of Western food products.

There are some fancy markets selling fresh food on the bottom level of nice shopping malls, many of them called Tops Supermarket.  One of the nicest ones you will ever see is on the bottom floor of the upscale Siam Paragon mall in BKK.  Great selection, and super high quality.  These mall supermarkets often have food courts as well.  They are very nice, but also very expensive.  You pay for the ambiance of precision stacked oranges and apples that are polished to look their very best.  If you are on a budget, you should not shop regularly in these places.

So you can eat just like you did back home, but it will cost you more, sometimes a lot more to do so.   If you eat like most people eat in America, your cost for groceries can easily be more than what you pay for rent for your house or apartment.The key to financial survival in Thailand if you like to eat at home is to become more “Thai-like”.  Eat as the natives do, and you will be (a) a lot richer, and (b) a lot healthier.

Front entrance to our local Thai market

Front entrance to our local Thai market

Grocery shopping the way most locals do is by shopping in the local market and buying fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, curries, newly made noodles, local rice, chickens right off the farm and fish right out of the river.  For some, that may require learning how to cook.  I am one of those very rare lucky guys that is married to a lady that is also a superb Thai chef.  That’s of course the best option for a guy — finding a partner that is a good cook.  If that doesn’t work, you may just have to learn Thai cooking, and fortunately Chiang Mai is full of Thai cooking schools of all different price ranges.

Side entrance to our local Thai market

Side entrance to our local Thai market

There are almost no ovens in any Thai home.  An oven cooks (or bakes or broils or whatever) food “Western style”.   You can get an oven installed, and they do have them in the home appliance stores, but it will be rare if you find one in a rental.

Many small apartments in Chiang Mai don’t really have a kitchen.  What serves as a semi-kitchen in these small living adobes is a microwave, a kitchen sink and a miniature refrigerator.  If you are in that situation, it may be best to find a good, cheap noodle shop nearby, and fortunately again, Chiang Mai is full of ‘em.

But in the following, I will address those that are able to cook or are going to learn to cook at home.  One of the first things you should find out about when looking at a new place to rent is how close is the local food market from home.  Even in highly cosmopolitan BKK, there are local markets in almost every neighborhood.  They are also in almost every neighborhood in CM, but since CM is pretty spread out, it may be quite some distance to the closest one, so it is important to find this out before committing your life to the prospective rental.

Inside our local Thai food market

Inside our local Thai food market

Our local market is about a five minute drive from the house.  We have learned to avoid going there about the time people are driving home from work and on Sundays because it can get very full with difficulty parking.  When you step into the market area, you are hit immediately with the mixed smells of roast chicken, spicy curries, fish and other seafood, and various Bar-B-Ques roasting sausages, corn many other foods.  It is a delightful shock to the senses.  .

Inside the market

Inside the market

The market near our house sells everything you need to eat well if you can cook.  It is like a big Farmer’s Market they hold in many US towns on the weekends, but these markets are open almost all the time and more complete.  Each food stand is owned and operated by a person (or usually by a family) that specializes in one kind of food.  The curries will usually be all in one area, another area (often enclosed to keep it cold) for the fresh fish, another for veggies and another for fruits.  Many of the products come from the backyard farms in the area, and many are organic (not perhaps in the very strictest sense, but food where they do not use chemical pesticides or fertilizers). The sellers can tell you if their products are organic, and some have little signs about it.  I have become a regular for one seller that gets all her veggies from local backyard farms and insists that all her suppliers not use chemicals (there are “natural” insect repellents and plant foods).

Buying dinner

Buying dinner

There are also stands that sell sundry goods like soap and cleaning material, and even mops and brooms (which may be made from thatched straw).  My wife has purchased small flowering plants to put into our garden from this market.

To shop at these Thai markets, one must be comfortable dealing with people that have little or (more likely) no English language skills.  It helps to have at least just a little Thai vocabulary, especially numbers, in dealing with the sellers.  Sign language and pantomime works to a degree which I have to rely on a lot.

Our typical shopping at the local market covers our food for at least a couple of days, and sometime longer.  When buying fresh, you can’t stock up unless you are supporting a big family or a small army.  Our cost for a couple days’ worth of fresh stuff is around ten bucks ‘American (or about 300 Baht) or less.  And with me eating so much fresh food, I feel healthier and have lost a lot of unwanted weight.

If we go there when it is too busy, customers compete for the attention of sellers, waving their bahts and pointing to what they want to take home.  There are more customers than the sellers can possibly manage, so the loudest most aggressive shoppers are served first in a mass of excitement.

Young market seller

Young market seller

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3 thoughts on “How an Expat Buys Groceries in Chiang Mai, Thailand to live better and cheaper!

  1. With Phuket being surrounded by fertile fishing grounds, the fresh seafood at most local markets makes for a fascinating sight. You can see huge groupers, big juicy tunas, red snappers, thousands of tiny silvery anchovies and shiny white squid all laying side by side on a bed of ice.

  2. I live in small apt without a kitchen but has small kitchen area for cleaning dishes. I bought an electric pan that doubles for cooking rice. It works quite well for cooking. Only limitation is I can only cook one thing at a time so need plan it out a little. Perhaps a small rice cooker would give more flexibility. Point is, you can cook even with these limitations.

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