Why Chiang Mai may NOT be a good place to live for Everyone

chiang mai skyline daytime

Why Chiang Mai may NOT be a good place to live for Everyone

There are lots of great aspects about Chiang Mai life written all over the internet, including this website.  It is a “livable” city, and I have made it my home.  The place works for me, but for sure it doesn’t work for everybody.  Everything should be considered before moving here permanently, so I have compiled a list of reasons I have heard why it doesn’t work for others.

1. Wild Nightlife (not)

If you are looking for a town with lots of adult “entertainment”, or many wild discos full of young people with a whiff of funny smoke in the air, Chiang Mai ain’t it.

Some single guys call it downright “boring”.  There are a few bars in the center tourist section of town that cater to those looking for temporary local female companionship, but they are paltry compared to what is available in Bangkok, Pattaya and many other Thai cities with expats.  There are no areas in Chiang Mai that could even be reasonably compared to Nana Plaza or Soi 8 in Pattaya.

And young Western girls and guys that are the “Khao San Road type” (that’s the famous backpacker street in Bangkok) also won’t find Chiang Mai too exciting.  There are a few discos around town, but the better ones seem to cater more towards young Thais, as there are thousands of Thai university students around town.

There are very good restaurants of every flavor in CM, but they seem designed for couples and groups of friends, not a place to pick up or get picked up.

2. English is not spoken everywhere

Despite CM being a college town, English is not spoken by most Thai people here.  Just outside of the tourist center of town (which geographically is not very large), you won’t find shop clerks or gas station attendants or waitresses in cafes that will be able to understand English.  I am guessing that it is just as hard for them to learn English as it is for me to learn Thai (which is not easy).

So if you have a tiny Thai vocabulary and are not in a constant learning mode, you have to get used to doing a lot of pantomime and waving hands and even having a little frustration sometimes.

Down in Bangkok and the beach cities of Thailand, English is more widely spoken.  On a recent trip I made to economically depressed Cambodia, I still found most locals spoke much more English there than in Chiang Mai.

Of course, the best way to solve this problem is for the expat to learn Thai.

3. There are no Beaches in Northern Thailand

People not living in this region tell me they are surprised to hear this, but it is true.  Chiang Mai is a long way from the ocean, and there are no calming cool ocean breezes flowing through town.  To get to the beach, you will probably have to take a flight down to Bangkok, change planes and take another flight further south.  Or else take a very long train or bus or car ride (about a day and half long).

On the plus side, it does not get as hot and sticky up in CM as it is located surrounded by forested mountains, and the town is higher up than most of the country.  Some say that during winter months it actually gets a little cold at night (which never happens down south).    On the other plus side, Chiang Mai will never have a Tsunami or a Typhoon.  Sometimes there is a typhoon off the coast of Vietnam (the closest ocean area) and we will get just the outer touches of it with a lot of rain and some wind, but that is rare.

4. Chiang Mai is a little isolated for those that want to travel out of the country

There are just a few flights each week that leave CM for foreign places, like Luang Prabang in Laos or Hong Kong.  Other than that, in order to travel almost anywhere outside of Thailand, you have to first fly down to Bangkok and then change planes.  No question about it, this is a little extra hassle and some extra expense.

5. Driving in Chiang Mai is downright scary

No sane person would drive at all in Bangkok unless they really had to do it.  Most people there take the Skytrain or a Taxi or one of many other kinds of public transportation.  In Chiang Mai, there is not an abundance of public transportation, with the main form being the Songthaew, which is kind of a cross between a pickup truck and a bus (you hop in back on some wooden benches on one going the right direction).  Most people living in CM have to eventually get their own transportation, minimally being a motor scooter or better yet, a car (but cars are expensive in Thailand).

Once you have your own wheels, you have to contend with the driving here in CM which is absolutely crazy and somewhat dangerous.  Accepted standard driving rules of the road are just a general guideline that is not followed very carefully.  Cars change lane in an instant with no indication, or even worse, straddle two lanes.  Cars may or may not stop at a stop sign.  The light turns red, but cars continue to go through the intersection.  Some car from the outside lane may quickly make an abrupt turn right in front of you going straight.  And through all that, you cannot lose your cool (that’s not done in Thailand).

In Chiang Mai, there are no patrolling cops to give tickets, and it is pretty much a free-for-all only governed by Thai courtesy (fortunately, most Thais are courteous and polite).   Despite the craziness on the road, you will seldom hear anyone honking their horn; most people just let others do what they want on the road without complaint.

The further outside of the center of town you are, the easier it is to drive around, so many resident expats avoid driving downtown like the plague.

6. Air Pollution

Chiang Mai is in a deep valley, surrounded by high mountains on each side.   There is not a lot of daily pollution, but once a year the farmers just out of town start burning the grass waste from the rice fields.  That smoke has nowhere to go, so it just sits right there in Chiang Mai.  This usually happens around mid- February through March, and fortunately it does not seem at all bad this year, but last year was awful.  The Thai government is trying to enforce the burning laws, but farmers have been doing this for maybe 500 years or so, and it is difficult to get them to change.  Hopefully, progress is being made.

I am actually amazed by how much grass waste is generated from a typical rice field.  If you drive through the farm areas, you will see this little mountains of dried grass (maybe 4-6 meters high) in front of almost every house.  It is probably pretty dangerous to keep all that dried grass stored right there, but I don’t know the answer to how they can get rid of it without burning it.

Also during this time of the year there are occassional lightning storms and they have been known to start a forest fire, which adds to the air pollution.



7.  Chiang Mai is not Cosmopolitan

Bangkok is truly one of the great cities of the world and absolutely everything can be found there.  While CM does have decent shopping, it does not have that big city feel like BKK.  CM is more like a “big village”, and people live here that may not be considered to be “worldly” as people in BKK.

Wander around BKK and you are likely to run into people from all over the world, every remote corner.  In Chiang Mai, you might be lucky to find anyone representing the far parts of the globe (they are probably here, but just not very many of them).  Chiang Mai has that small town atmosphere, even though in most ways it is a modern small city.


That’s the best list I can come up with of the negatives about Chiang Mai and why there are some that may not like it.  If you have anything to add to this list, please let us know in the comments.

Actually my list of negatives might be regarded as positives for some that want a simple no-hassle life that this smaller city provides.

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8 thoughts on “Why Chiang Mai may NOT be a good place to live for Everyone

  1. Of these points the only one I find a terrible problem is the air pollution and that should be number one on the list. I would consider migrating a few months a year like some expats do. I still cannot understand why this attraction for bargirls? It is easy to find a Thai girl that is younger, more attractive than the bargirls here. They are very loving and will give sex for free. So many women here are desperate to meet a good farang.

    It would be great to list all the positives in another article. I think that they far out weigh the negatives. Maybe some ideas could include:
    - Polite, friendly and welcoming Thai people
    - Availability of international food and luxuries
    - Personal Safety
    - Less poverty than the US, meaning less crime
    - Low cost of living
    - Many happily married farang/thai couples
    - Fantastic sight seeing and temples
    - Many attractions eg elephant, tiger…
    - Natural beauty lakes, mountains, waterfalls etc
    - Outdoor activities

    • You’re right on all points.
      I don’t find the air pollution very bad this year, and I know the Thai army is trying to stop burning, so maybe it is having an effect.

  2. I’ve thought about moving to many places around the world, and I’ve traveled to many countries (although not as many as my brother Greg), but despite all their many charms, I think it’s best to stay right here in Manatee County, Florida.

    This is not California. My wife and I own a little house trailer and lot free and clear, no mortgage, and since this is my sole domicile, under Florida’ “homestead law” my property tax is a minimal $150/year, which supports our local fire department. Electricity is cheap and reliable, and I have pretty good high-speed Internet and cable TV bundled as a package that costs too much, but *is* high speed and reliable.

    Beach? Yes, I like the beach. It’s 15 minutes away in one of my wife’s and my two cars. Why two? Because they’re not new, we own them free and clear, and insurance for two cars instead of one is only $300 extra per year, so why not?

    And if we go inland, away from the beach, we are in agricultural country. Manatee County grows oranges and grapefruits — it’s home to Tropicana — but it also grows tomatoes, lettuce and the rest of a salad, many fresh non-citrus fruits, chickens (and eggs) and cattle like mad. Beef here is plentiful, low-cost, and tasty. We had a lovely T-Bone steak last night that I grilled over Mesquite charcoal in my little back yard. Yum!

    And for nights when we want to cook outdoors but don’t feel like messing with charcoal or want to make rotisserie chicken or roto a pork or beef roast, we have a propane gas grill, too. Is propane cheap and easy to get in Chiang Mai? It is here.

    We have a community swimming pool. I like that. Also a community paperback book exchange and an excellent local library. In Chiang Mai I suspect that I’d end up reading on my computer because I’d have trouble finding books in English that are to my taste. At one point I thought about moving to Veracruz in Mexico, a coastal city I truly love, but after I totted up the cost of bringing in books and the higher Internet fees, not to mention travel to IT conferences to earn money as a freelancer writing about electronics and software, it was cheaper to stay here.

    Then there’s the kids. Greg has an adopted family in and around Chiang Mai. I have an adopted family in and around Baltimore, which is a long one-day or relaxed two-day drive away on smooth American Interstate highways with convenient rest stops, restaurants, motels, and gas stations every few miles. We’re not going to go to Baltimore this time of year — we like our sub-tropical “no snow” Florida weather as much as anyone in Chiang Mai enjoys the weather there — but in Spring or Summer we’ll visit more than once. And they come here, too, to visit us — and Mickey Mouse at Disney World, which isn’t far.

    A last thing is the language barrier. Almost everyone here speaks English. The few who don’t speak Spanish, which I can limp along in. And that brings us to Mexican food. I’m okay with Thai food, but I’m a California boy, which means my native meal is a teriyaki beef taco with a side of Armenian grape leaves. Or something like that, with ingredients from multiple cultures.

    But Mexican food, to me, is as American as apple pie, and I wouldn’t want to do without it. How many fresh tortilla factories are there in Chiang Mai? Zero? We have half a dozen within 5 miles.

    And the beach. I love my beach. Chiang Mai has no beach. Manatee County has lots of beach — and bays and rivers, with dolphins and manatees.

    I’ll stay here, at least for now. :)

    • Yes, but of course you are still living in the US and I could go on a lot about that arrangement. Just to put it in very general terms, living in the US today takes away many of your freedoms once enjoyed by Americans, but many people are able to have outside of it’s borders. You are overtaxed, over-regulated, and over controlled, and the money you are feeding to the US federal government is providing killing machines for millions of people around the world. If that is all OK for you, I am glad you are in a nice situation. But it is true, it is difficult to get a burrito here in Chiang Mai (but we actually have a couple of Tex/Mex restaurants in town).

  3. On my top 20 list of favorite cusines, I would rank Mexican food at #25. And I live in Southern California! I’ll take Thai over Mexican anytime.

  4. Another nice post Greg !

    As for the Mexican Food I do get an urge every month or two & find
    Miguels on the moat or Chiangmai Lamphun Road quite good.

    Funny though the longer I live here the less I seek out over filling meals.
    By overfilling I do not mean so much the quantity of food as its ingredients.
    Maybe it is the cheese? I’m Not sure
    I don’t know why but after eating them I just feel crappy. But of course every couple of months I do still get the urge for the Mexican or Pizza,Burger type deal. :)
    But when done with eating it I always say I don’t want to do that again for awhile.

    What you said about the US is of course sadly true.

  5. Hi Greg, I’m wondering about the weather in Chiang Mai, you’ve been around in many places in the USA, can you give me a comparison? Take Hawaii for instance, how much hotter is Chiang Mai than Hawaii? Or say Orlando Fl in the summer, is it hotter than Orlando? Is it as hot as Miami? Not sure I could handle it as hot as Miami because that’s just too darn hot for my tastes. What about Cancun? To me the most perfect weather I’ve ever been in is Hawaii, that to me is absolute perfect weather year round 24 hours per day 365 days per year. Orlando isn’t bad at all and I like it there. Miami is too hot and humid and sticky. Cancun isn’t too bad but the sun is brutal, 10 minutes in the sun there is like a couple of hours in San Diego and at least one hour in Hawaii. So what would you give a comparison to with respect to weather in Chiang Mai? Thanks in advance……

    • If I were to take a guess, I would say Chiang Mai weather is similar to Orlando. CM does not have the sea winds that Hawaii has (being quite a distance from any ocean). It is not as hot and humid as Miami because CM is elevated and in the mountains. Much of Thailand (South of Bangkok) has weather closer to that of Miami, and some cities have an ocean breeze. Chiang Mai is in a steep valley. with mountains around the city on all sides. We are north of the equator, so we have summer (can get pretty hot during August) and a winter (November thru January are the most pleasant months, with temps running around 70-80 degrees F). Beginning in late February till the beginning of April (which is our dry season), the farms outside of Chiang Mai burn their crops so that they can plant new ones. It is a big problem because the smoke gets stuck in the Valley, creating some really bad air. The government is trying to stamp out the practice of burning crops, but it has been done this way for a couple of hundred years. So during this period, people do complain about the air a lot. When it starts raining in April, it clears up quickly.

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