Chiang Mai for Digital Nomads

By Elizabeth Kelsey on July 11th, 2016
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After living in Phuket for nearly 5 years, Elizabeth Kelsey decided to make the move North. For the last year, she’s been living on the outskirts of Chiang Mai with her family and loving it. Read on for her thoughts and tips on setting up and getting settled in Thailand’s famous city of temples.

Why Chiang Mai?


Temple in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is a great place to live for singles, families, students, and everyone in between. It’s a popular tourist destination (as you probably already know), due to the myriad of temples here. Outlying areas like Hang Dong are quieter, with fewer traffic jams. But even in the city center, you’ll find a soi(street) or two that isn’t loaded with hostels and backpackers in elephant pants, wandering the streets with Chang beers in hand.

Beyond the temples and assorted cultural and touristy attractions, there are many shopping malls that are quite popular with Thais. These large, modern destinations are filled with bustling shoppers as well as movie theaters, trendy and foreign chain restaurants, kids’ play areas, billing centers for the numerous telephone/internet/tv companies, and large department stores selling popular brand clothing, toys, and household appliances. Spending a day at the mall is a great way to beat the heat or stay dry on rainy days.

Planning a Gap Year to include Chiang Mai?

Finding Accomodation


Chiang Mai View

If you’re considering moving to Chiang Mai–for a few months or a few years–know that you have loads of housing options to choose from. While we’ve always rented, purchasing a townhouse or a condo is an affordable option, even though buying property can be complicated for foreigners.
“The best way to find the right house, condo or townhouse for your family is to spend a few weeks in short-term accommodation while you explore the neighborhoods you’re interested in.”
While it’s true that sites with listings for rentals and sale options exist, the English-language sites typically feature more expensive options marketed specifically to foreigners. The best way to find the right house, condo, or townhouse for your family is to spend a few weeks in short-term accommodation while you explore the neighborhoods you’re interested in. This gives you time to find the best pricing options as affordable housing is marketed to locals via word of mouth and signs posted.

Smaller condos and townhouses can cost anywhere from 3,000 to 20,000 Thai Baht while 2-4 bedroom houses run 10,000 to 30,000 Baht. If you’re looking for a pool, finding ‘moo baans’ or neighborhoods that have local pools isn’t hard. Call a real estate agent or check Chiang Mai House for an easy way to narrow your search down to the area desired, at a reasonable price, with the amenities you want.

Having pets in a rental is much easier to negotiate in Thailand than in the west (in Los Angeles you sometimes have to pay nearly $100 extra in rent per month for each animal!). Ask the owner and they’ll probably say no problem, especially if you rent long term. Expect to put down 2 months rent for deposit most places, but that too is negotiable. When in doubt, ask, but make sure to bargain within reason, otherwise it’ll be looked at as an insult and you’ll get nowhere, fast. Smile! Thailand‘s a happy place!

“Smile! Thailand’s a happy place!”

Finding Work


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Finding employment in Chiang Mai depends on your profession and your visa status. One of the most popular careers for foreigners is teaching English at one of the city’s many schools, public or international. Many public schools require applicants to have a TEFL certificate or a Bachelor’s Degree, but there are exceptions. International schools have stricter hiring policies since they tend to use an American or English curriculum; they require teaching degrees and qualifications. On the bright side, these schools pay a much higher wage and offer more perks for teachers: some even offer free or half price enrollment for teacher’s children. For a short list of international schools in Chiang Mai, check out the schools page at Embrace Chiang Mai.

“If you’re serious about finding a teaching job, my suggestion is to contact schools directly to see if they’re hiring.”

If you’re serious about finding a teaching job, my suggestion is to contact schools directly to see if they’re hiring. After speaking with school directors in Phuket, I’ve learned that they are in desperate need of serious applicants that really care about students, and aren’t just trying to get a job to fund their partying habit. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear directors express the same sentiment in Chiang Mai. Passion for teaching and sincere, heartfelt interest in the success of your students will make you stand out as a candidate, even if you’re competing with a more experienced teacher for an opening at a school. Expect to sign a long-term contract of a year or more, and pay for your own lodging and transportation.

Regardless of what type of work you find, you’ll need to have a work permit in order to start your career in Thailand. It’s important to note that if you entered Thailand as a tourist, you may also be asked to help pay for the work visa since you’ll have to exit the country to switch to the correct visa.

Shopping


Lanna Food in Chiang Mai
One of the many reasons expats love Thailand is the low cost of living. Organic vegetables, fruits, and meats from wet markets (markets selling fresh food and produce as opposed to dry goods) and even hypermarkets are extremely affordable. Expats looking for a taste of home can find American, English, and Australian food brands all over Chiang Mai. The Rimping supermarket chain has 9 stores located around Chiang Mai. Three of the large shopping malls (Promenada, Maya, and Central Festival) each have a large Rimping store inside.

The other 2 shopping malls (Central Airport Plaza Mall and Kad Suan Kaew) house Tops Market. These chains offer the biggest selection of popular western brands of pasta, cereals, snacks and beverages, as well as canned goods, dry and baking goods, condiments, etc. If you need a treat or a small taste of home, more than likely you’ll find it at one of these stores.

The 5 big shopping malls mentioned above also host telecommunications businesses TRUE, AIS and 3BB. Head to these stores to get connected at home or on-the-go. Buy a cheap SIM card with reasonable pay-as-you-go rates. You can top up your minutes at any of their stores and 7-11! Need to pay your electric bill in a hurry? Head to the ground floor at Central Airport Plaza Mall and you’ll find a Provincial Electricity Authority or PEA office near the covered parking lot!

There are numerous wet markets throughout Chiang Mai. Where we live, in Hang Dong, we have at least five. Every Monday and Wednesday there’s a bustling market that takes over the Kad Farang parking lots. It’s full of food stalls and practically everything imaginable: Thai fruits and vegetables, Thai iced tea and sweet drinks; fried snacks and delicacies; sausages and chicken cooked every way possible; curries and soups; fried noodles and rice; grilled salted fish (a favorite); and ice-cream galore. Stalls selling sushi, pizza, and cheesy offerings have also become quite popular recently.

“Bring some pocket change and expect to be stuck in a pack of people slowly meandering down rows of stalls.”

Bring some pocket change and expect to be stuck in a pack of people slowly meandering down rows of stalls. At these big markets, you can spend hours getting from one end to the other. For the few things you can’t find at local markets and supermarkets, there are western-style hypermarkets. Big C, Tesco Lotus, and Makro have imported items like cheese and wine, as well as local produce. Makro is similar to Costco in that you can buy in bulk; it’s also the best place to get kitchen appliances and housewares.

Transportation


Truck & workers, Chiang Mai Thailand
Getting around Chiang Mai is relatively easy. Converted pickup trucks function as buses, running from the outskirts to the center. They’re painted different colors to display their route. They run back and forth without a set arrival time. It’s not uncommon to see 3 trucks in a row, but sometimes you may wait for 10 -15 minutes before seeing a truck.

In Hang Dong, the popular Lowt Luan (yellow truck) runs from North Chiang Mai University all the way to the city center for just 30 baht. It passes Tesco, Big C and the Central Airport Plaza Mall on the way, so it’s a quick, cheap ride to main shopping areas –no need for a taxi. Red Trucks (Lowt Deng) are like taxis. They take you where you want to go, but at a higher price than the other truck-buses. They’re popular in the city center and not too expensive, but the truck will stop to pick up other passengers and may not go outside the city square. Always talk to the driver about your destination before jumping in and inquire about the price beforehand with a polite – “Tao Rai Kap/Ka?” (Ka for woman, Kap for man).

Metered taxis are available but most will quote a price before taking you to a destination and not use the meter. Arriving at the airport is a perfect example of this. The cars say ‘meter taxi’ but you’re required to pay the amount quoted. I think we’ve yet to take a real meter taxi in Chiang Mai. Cars and motorbikes are available for rent or purchase. I don’t recommend riding motorbikes due to the plethora of horror stories I’ve heard about foreigners’ experiences, but almost every block has a hotel or a rental place advertising bikes for 150-300 baht a day.

“Please be smart, careful and have plenty of prior experience before riding (motorbikes) in Thailand.”
Please be smart, careful and have plenty of prior experience before riding in Thailand. Driving here is not the same as in western countries, and too often, newbie bikers and drivers are who pay the price. Cars are the safest and easiest way to get around town if you want to explore everything. Chiang Mai has the popular western car rental companies – AVIS, Budget, Hertz, and Sixt but there are also many local businesses, like Airportrentals and North Wheels.

What you pay for a car rental depends on how long you rent and the time of the year. Average daily rentals range between 800-1200 baht for compact cars but if you spring for monthly or a one-time payment for multiple months, the daily amount can be reduced to 400-600 baht. If you are staying during the holiday or ‘high season’, prices can increase by 50% or more. This is usually from the beginning of November (Loy Krathong festival) through Chinese New Year in the beginning of February. Prices go up again during the week of Songkran in April. When in doubt, negotiate, (with a smile on your face!), and you’ll find a reasonable price.

Overall, moving to Chiang Mai has been an amazing experience. With the many family-friendly activities and restaurants, and the welcoming community, we’ve found ample things for our homeschooler to do. And if you choose to call Chiang Mai home, I’m sure you too will find the culture and community you’ve been looking for.

Have you been to Chiang Mai? Share your story below.

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