What is the Cost of Living WELL in Chiang Mai

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A defocused photo of Chiang Mai's colorful streets at dusk.

It’s hard for me to believe I’m fast approaching my third year in Chiang Mai. What’s crazy is I just can’t get enough of it. With every passing day, I’m loving it more and more. I was just telling my best friend yesterday how I can’t see myself moving away. There’s something for everyone in Chiang Mai, and it is nowhere near as crowded and loud as Bangkok. That said, plenty of expats tout its cheap living costs and I want to focus this post on that misconception–specifically the cost of living WELL in Chiang Mai.

It really isn’t that cheap,

If you live the lifestyle you’re used to living back home.

Think about it, you could probably emulate the cheap cost of living in Chiang Mai, although not quite exactly, if you did the same back home: lived in a small, basic room, had no insurance, no car, and lived a minimalist lifestyle.

A mahout and his elephant in the jungle surrounding Chiang Mai.

Although the term “living well” will always arguably be up for debate, I’m going to use my own expenses as a template. I don’t like living tight. I’m not in my 20s or 30s. As you grow older, your expectations rise. I don’t want to be bootstrapping it anymore. I want to enjoy the luxuries Thailand has to offer, without any shadow of hesitation lurking in the background.

Although we’ll discuss the cost of living WELL in Chiang Mai,

I’ll still share some money-saving tips to maximize your funds.

I don’t skimp on anything. I chose to buy a new car and obtain premium health insurance, and I’ll share these costs with you too. If you want a more comfortable lifestyle, this article will answer your most basic questions. Even if you’re not looking to spend too much, you’ll gather a lot of money-saving tips.

For simplicity’s sake, I’ll be listing everything in dollars, with today’s exchange rate being roughly $1 = 35 baht.

One thing that has always been attractive to me about Chiang Mai is that, although you can still live pretty affordably in Bangkok, the propensity to spend is much greater there than here. The temptation to spend follows you everywhere in Bangkok, and you’re more likely to splurge.

Breakdown of the cost of living the good life in beautiful Chiang Mai:

Accommodation

In my three years here I’ve noticed rents remain steady. In some areas it actually fell. Due to a steady construction boom, which doesn’t seem to be abating anytime soon, there is an abundance of nice apartments and studios for rent. You’ll have to ask whether cable TV and internet are included in your rent, since these can tack on an additional 1,000 Baht or so to your rent ($30):

  • Modern one bedroom (popular area) — $400-600
  • Modern studio (popular area) — $300-500
  • Luxury one bedroom — $1,000+
  • New, modern house (popular area) — $600-1000
  • Traditional Thai style house, outside of town — $150-300

Most housing found outside of the popular areas, or the city center, will be significantly cheaper. So when people tell you they’re living in a 3 bedroom house for $300, that is entirely true. The home, however, will be older, generally Thai-style with a basic shower and bathroom, and several kilometers away from the city center.

You can always find exceptions and great deals, but we’re not talking exceptions here.

I pay $400 a month to live in a beautiful 40 sq. m. one-bedroom apartment in a trendy district. The building is only 2 years old and there is towel and bed sheet service twice weekly. Wifi and cable TV are included and I am smack dab in the middle of the Nimmanhaemin area.

A gorgeous sunset panorama in Doi Inthanon, near Chiang Mai, Thailand.

You also have to figure that most newer one-bedrooms will have two AC units, which will cost you around 3000 baht ($90)/ month in electricity cost during the hot summer. If you use mostly fans or no AC, that cost will significantly go down. As I said before, I don’t skimp on costs and I want share the cost of living WELL in Chiang Mai. Some people spend WAY more than me, so my cost is definitely not outrageous.

My monthly cost of accommodation & utilities: $514

Food & Drink

Chiang Mai is not as diverse as Bangkok in terms of food variety and most of what you’ll find is Thai and Western fare. Arabic food tastes terrible here, and you won’t find anything exotic like Ethiopian food, at least I haven’t, yet! There are very decent Mexican, Indian, and Italian restaurants. You can also find an ample offering of vegetarian and health foods. Everyone talks about that economical 30 baht rice and chicken dish: I’ll be talking real food and real money–that means living it up, daily:

  • Mexican meal (1 person) — $10-14
  • Italian meal (1 person) — $8-15+
  • Starbucks drink — $3-5
  • Coffee house drink — $2-3
  • Food stalls — $1-2.5 (depends on what you get)
  • Shopping mall food court — $1.5-4
  • Western restaurant — $8-$12
  • Coffee Club — $8-15 (great coffee and food)
  • Ping river market — $5 (chicken, beef, vegetables–lasts 2-3 days)
  • Swensen ice cream, 1 scoop — $1.5+
  • Fruit Smoothie — $1 (shopping mall cafeteria/market)
  • Fruit Smoothie, designer cafe — $2-3
  • 5 star hotel buffet — $60-100

As you can see, the economical route is to go to the Ping river market and buy fresh food and cook it yourself. I do both, mixing it up between market foods and higher-end restaurants. I love to go out and eat, and I won’t limit myself.

A bench and a serene backdrop of mountains in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The experience of it all, to be able to sit at a nice cafe or restaurant and read, means everything to me. Since my girlfriend often tags along, I’ll include her food cost too. She pays some, I pay most.

My monthly cost of coffee & food (girlfriend & I): $1,285

Technology

This is a broad category that covers everything from cell phone plans to a new Mac laptop, all of which I purchased here in Chiang Mai. The data plans in Thailand are more than enough to get work done. You can always upgrade your home wifi to speedier options at a cost that won’t break the bank. Consumer electronics aren’t that much more expensive, especially if you figure in the VAT refund when you exit the kingdom for a short trip abroad:

  • 2017, top-of-the-line 15″ Macbook Pro (touchbar) — $3,285 (VAT refund on that was about $200)
  • iPhone 7 & 128GB / unlocked — $771 (as soon as it came out; prices have since dropped)
  • Phone package (400 mins/texts/30GB Data) — $25/month
  • Cable TV — $10 / month (not many English channels in Thailand)
  • 25-down/10-up Home Wifi — $15-20/month

A lot has changed since my last post about the cost of living in Chiang Mai. Starbucks, for example, offers free wifi now. A little over a year ago wifi cost $4/hour at Starbucks. So, in some respects, things have gotten cheaper. The large purchases I made above are one-offs, but they are not that much more expensive than buying things back home in the US. The downside is my keyboard is in English/Thai, but then again my previous keyboard was in English/Arabic!

Monthly bills in this category hardly dent the cost of living well in Chiang Mai.

My monthly cost of technology in Chiang Mai: $25 (data plan only).

Transportation

You have tons of affordable options when it comes to transportation in Thailand. The most popular option is just renting a scooter. However, since I live here long-term and have a long-term visa as well (I’ll discuss it later), I opted to buy a new car.

Moat and fort in the old city of Chiang Mai. Temple in the background.

Traffic has gotten noticeably worse in the last year, so the advantage of a scooter is two-fold: cheaper and faster to get around. On the flip-side, they aren’t as safe and you’ll be sweating your butt off in the summer. Here are my approximate costs of transportation; I’ll include flights:

  • 2017 Toyota Yaris Sportivo (TRD) — $19,000
  • Car insurance (1st class), annual — $514
  • Car gas — $50-60/month (gotta love those small engines!)
  • Car wash — $8
  • New scooter — $1,300 (or less)
  • Used scooter — $750
  • Scooter rental — $4-6/day (cheaper with longer plans)
  • Red public bus (songtaew) — $.60-1.2. Up to $3 for long hauls, like the airport.
  • Tuk tuk — $3-5 (I usually settle on 100-120 baht and don’t argue much)
  • Local AirAsia flight, last minute / includes 20 kg. baggage check — $45
  • Local AirAsia flight, first class — $75
  • Advanced booking flight (any airline) – $20-$30
  • Van to neighboring cities — $3-6 (such Chiang Mai to Pai)
  • Train, long haul / overnight one-way — $35-45

I highly recommend purchasing a vehicle, whether a scooter or a car, if you plan on living here long-term. There are many nooks in Chiang Mai you’ll want to visit, and many of those you’ll only stumble upon as you drive around. I’m adding flights to my monthly cost of transportation. I love to impulsively just get up and go buy a plane ticket for a 1-2 day trip to Bangkok. It’s cheap, and well worth it:

My monthly cost of transportation: $320

Entertainment

This is such a huge category  I don’t even know where to begin, so I’ll start with what I typically do and where I spend money. Every entertainment option has a budget aspect to it too; this means a cinema ticket can be bought for half the price listed here. The caveat is that you can only go to the movies after a certain time and/or on a certain day of the week.

Let’s jump right in:

  • Average cinema ticket — $5
  • Budget cinema ticket — $2.5-3
  • King bed VIP cinema — $28
  • Ultra luxury VIP cinema — $56 (food, champagne, valet–found this in Siam Paragon, Bangkok)
  • Cocktail– $3-4
  • Bottle service in bar — $10-30
  • Beer, local, in bar — $2
  • Paperback Book — $8-10
  • Paperback, used bookstore — $3-6
  • Jetski, 30 minutes — $60
  • Water sports, 1 session — $50-200 (depends on what you do)
  • Beach mattress/umbrella (full day) — $3-5

I have to warn you of the downfalls of getting involved in the shadier, more notorious aspects of entertainment in Thailand: bar girls and the nightlife. Tons of folk come to Thailand for sex tourism and many have left broke and broken-hearted. If paying $50-100 per “session” is what you desire, no one can stop you–but you’ll be left promoting something that frequently leaves locals, if not yourself, with diseases. I’ve seen plenty of guys fall into an endless cycle of “bar-fining“, as it is known, and blow through their funds and their long-term dreams. What should have been a wholesome experience ends up being shallow and empty.

The cost of living well in Chiang Mai includes trips to this popular sunday night market near Thaphae Gate in Chiang Mai.







I recommend finding a good woman/man and spending quality time with them.

My monthly cost of entertainment in Chiang Mai: $550

Miscellaneous

I’ll list a few extras I think will help you get your head wrapped around other aspects of the cost of living well in Chiang Mai. Living well doesn’t mean having to always spend a lot. You can go to TESCO Lotus, a budget store that sells plenty of trendy clothing, and buy tons of stylish clothes on the cheap.

Here’s a list of actual, random expenses:

  • Clothes, full new wardrobe from TESCO — $80-100
  • Collar shirt from TESCO — $3-5
  • Shorts from TESCO — $3-5
  • Medical MRI — $400
  • Doctor visit — $10 (can be much more with meds)
  • Coworking Space, 1 month –$100
  • Coworking Space, 1 month/private office — $350
  • Broken arm cast — $100-300 (happened to a friend)
  • Braces, initial set up — $150-200
  • Braces, monthly change (includes change of color!) — $35
  • Dental cleaning — $20-30
  • Medical insurance, top / monthly — $150
  • Medical insurance, average / monthly — $50-100
  • Item of clothing in a typical market — $2-5 (ie t shirt, short, boxers, etc)
  • Gym membership, average / monthly — $40-60
  • Gym membership, premium / monthly – $80-100
  • Elite Visa, obtained 2 weeks ago (5-year visa) — $15,000

It blows my mind how cheap dentistry–or anything medical–is here in Thailand. There are definitely more upscale dentists that will charge you far more and will do an outstanding job. You’ll find plenty of budget options, so be sure the quality of work done is good. Check out their online reviews. My monthly cost here includes a premium gym membership, top medical insurance, a co-working office, and random tidbits here and there.

My monthly cost of miscellaneous expenses: $450

Total Cost of living WELL in Chiang Mai

Some may think I am spending a lot, but I am factoring in many expenses which may be unavoidable–such as an MRI, or getting health insurance as a result, or a peaceful co-working space / office so that I can work, uninterrupted, on my novel writing. Many people I know spend far more.

Let’s add up my categories on my monthly cost of living WELL in Chiang Mai:

  • Accommodation — $514
  • Food & Drink — $1285 (I pay for most outings with my girlfriend)
  • Technology — $25
  • Transportation — $320
  • Entertainment — $550
  • Miscellaneous — $450
  • Total: $3,144

Medical insurance, an office, paying for two people (she tries to pay whenever she can, but her income is far less than mine), premium gym, and more, all add up to an almost Western-style expense profile. The cost of living WELL in Chiang Mai is very different from what I think is being portrayed left and right out there.

I could easily shave off $1,000 monthly and still be living quite well, but as I said I don’t want to cut corners at this stage of my life. Furthermore, since my ventures abroad earn me credit card reward points, I end up paying a big fat zero for all living expenses. I usually earn back about $2,500-3,000 in points monthly. Hence, as unapologetic as my cost of living may be, I actually end up paying very little for it.

A beautiful temple overlooking the rolling hills near Chiang Mai during a colorful sunset.

When I first started Banker in the Sun, I was talking about going for a great lifestyle and going at it with a plan. If you plan properly, you can live anywhere and pay peanuts. It isn’t a dream, it’s a real possibility. But it comes at a very high cost initially.

You’ll need to work like you’ve never worked before.

You’ll need to put in significant hours–you’ll be stressed. You’ll have to forego going out with friends in order to get sh*t done, week after week.

But the payoff is, eventually, the lifestyle you were looking for all along,

Unhindered.

What is your cost of living well or luxuriously abroad? What is your long-term financial strategy to make this lifestyle sustainable?

 
Additional resources I highly recommend:

 

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