There are very few places where an intellectual crowd mingles amongst some of the most stunning mountainous scenery. Add to that a vibrant coffee culture and the low cost of living in Chiang Mai, and you have yourself a winning destination. For those looking to maximize their dollars all the while getting some serious work done, I can hardly think of many other places to recommend to live in.
Although numerous cities worldwide share Chiang Mai’s low cost of living–it’s the ambiance there that is so hard to beat. The people are absolutely wonderful, the social life awesome, and the nightlife pretty decent. You’ll get your fill of partying if you know where to go and if you don’t just stick to expat spots.
The cost of living in Chiang Mai is what enticed me to live there.
It’s hard to believe you can get so much for so little. Although I did talk about the cost of living in Thailand in an earlier post, the cost of living in Chiang Mai warrants its own post for a good reason.
The very same reason it’s become a digital nomad hub in southeast Asia.
It offers the best of modern conveniences with an old world flavor.
As of the time of this writing, the exchange rate has been $1 = 31 baht. If you are pulling from an overseas account, check the ATM rates daily–the rates can fluctuate vastly from day to day. On a Monday I found the exchange rate to be 28 baht to $1. The very next day it was 31 baht to the dollar. It pays to wait for the right day to pull out your money.
Here’s a breakdown of the cost of living in Chiang Mai by categories:
Chiang Mai simply rocks this category. There are few places that offer the beauty of Thailand at such a basement bargain price. Everything from apartments to hostels are cheap in Chiang Mai.
If you go to Mini Guesthouse in the central Taphae gate area (located in the alley beside McDonalds), you can get a private room with bathroom for $7. I urge you not to book online. Many hostels advertised online are a ten minute walk away, when you could get a central one in front of the gate for a fraction of the price.
Cheap dorm bed — $3-$4 per day
Boutique dorm bed — $8-$10 per day
Cheap hostel private room, ensuite, aircon — $8 per day
Average hostel private room, ensuite, aircon — $15-20 per day
Budget hotel — $30 per day
Good hotel — $60-100 per day
High Luxury hotel — $200+ per day
Nice Studio apartment — $250 per month (you can find them as low as $100 for basic style)
One bedroom — $400-600
One bedroom, luxury — $1,000
Two bedroom house — $300 (not city center)
Two bedrooms apartment are only a couple hundred dollars more than one bedrooms. A non-luxury one bedroom is still modern and beautiful, but the luxury version has all the bells and whistles, including marble bathrooms.
Also, many mid-range hostels don’t offer that much more than cheap hostels–and the rooms can look almost identical. It’s best to just get off at the Taphae gate and go hostel shopping on the spot.
Side note: if you are looking to rent a place, expect to pay first month’s rent, as well as a security deposit which equals two months of rent, for a total of three months rent up-front.
Food & Drink
When it comes to food, the cost of living in Chiang Mai blows Bangkok away. A mango sticky rice in Bangkok on Silom may cost 3$ or more. I’ve never had to pay more than $1.50 in Chiang Mai. I’d venture to say food is about 50% cheaper in Chiang Mai:
Pad Thai noodles with chicken — $1
Vegetarian dish with a spring roll — $1.5
Fruit smoothie — 70 cents
Fancy salad — $2.5
Coffee, high end — $4
Coffee, boutique — $2-$3
Western breakfast — $2-$3
Nice meal (for two) — $10-$15
Sushi in mall (for two) — $30
Sushi in the night market — $3
A single person would have no problem surviving on $5 a day and we’re not talking small portions of food. Each mall has a food court which serves big dishes for a dollar or two.
If you’re coming via Chiang Mai’s airport, there is a cell phone stand in the baggage claim area selling SIM cards and subscription packages. Otherwise, there are cell phone company stores in every mall. Popular cell phone providers are DTAC and True.
You can spend a lot on cellular service, but what I list below is more than ample for the average user:
80 local minutes, 80 texts, 1GB data — $10 per month
Elite cell plan — $40 (unlimited data and tons of minutes/texts) per month
Wifi (home) — $20 per month
Wifi (starbucks) — $10 per month / unlimited
Cable TV — $12 per month (this often comes included in the rent with many apartments)
SMS, domestic — 3 cents
SMS, intn’l — 26 cents (although I recommend using WhatsApp or Line for free SMS)
Local call — 2 cents per minute
International call — 25-50 cents per minute
You do not need a scooter to get around, but I highly recommended you get one since you’ll want to go around exploring the city. The cost of living in Chiang Mai remains affordable in part because of cheap transportation.
Although there is no metro system or skytrain like there is Bangkok, you’ll find plenty of songthaew buses that operate 24 hours a day. These can take you anywhere you want for less than a dollar:
Bicycle rental — $1.5 per day
Scooter — $3-$5 per day (double that for higher end scooters)
Fuel (1 liter) — $1.3
Car rental — $20-70 per day
Tuk Tuk (not recommended) — $3-5 per trip
Songtaew bus (recommended) — 66 cent per trip
If you don’t like scooters, the songthaew is by far the most affordable way to get around. These no-air con buses cruise the streets, picking up passengers who wave at them.
Side note: Some songthaews may try to charge you more than 66 cents (20 baht). Politely decline and wait for the next one to show up–unless it is 2am, when you may have no other choice but to accept the higher rate.
Bangkok one-ups (or actually three-ups) Chiang Mai’s night scene, but there’s plenty to suit your fancy if you’re not too picky. The cost of living in Chiang Mai will sky rocket if beer is your best bud. Beer isn’t so cheap, but the local whiskey makes up for it.
As long as you like the taste of gasoline.
Okay, local whiskey doesn’t taste that bad, and here’s a run-down of some numbers:
Vodka, 1 L — $20-25
Whiskey, 1 L — $8-$10 (local brand, double that for international)
Beer from store — $1
Beer in tourist pub — $3
Beer in Thai pub — $2 (big bottle)
Taxi tour of the mountains — $20-$30
Forest ziplining — $60-$120
Gym membership (Powerhouse) — $300 for the year
If you check out some of the Thai pubs, like the ones beside Chiang Mai university’s Malin Plaza, you’ll find great deals on drinks. You’ll have to excuse the video quality below, I took it on an iPhone, but it gives you an idea of what a Thai club looks like.
I have not included elephant and tiger parks in the category because I am staunchly against the abuse these animals suffer at the hands of their trainers.
Total Cost of Living in Chiang Mai
Cost and finances aside, there is something to be said about the ease of meeting new friends in Chiang Mai. You’ll often run across the same expats and eventually become acquainted. The local Thais are very friendly too.
You can easily live for cheap in Chiang Mai, but make no mistake, you can easily blow as much money here as you would back home.
It all depends on where you eat and where you live.
I’m going to outline a reasonable monthly budget for someone looking to live in Chiang Mai long-term:
Accommodation (modern studio) — $300
Food and Drink — $300
Technology — $40
Entertainment — $200
Transportation — $40
Grand total — $880
I’ve included the daily cup of coffee in the food and drink budget, and the occasional beer in the entertainment budget. If you either love coffee shops or pubs, I would tack on an additional $200-$400 to the grand total above.
You will also have significant up-front costs, such as making three rent payments to move in to your new apartment or house (first month rent, plus two months deposit). You will also need to buy furniture, towels, and sheets.
Overall, the cost of living in Chiang Mai is very cheap and you can see why it still remains a vibrant digital nomad hotspot.
The question you will ask yourself once you move here is not whether you like Chiang Mai or not,
But how long the dream the will last.
Have you considered taking advantage of the low cost of living in Chiang Mai and moving there? Do you recommend any other affordable cities?