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.