While working on this series of posts about spending the past year in Chiang Mai, I thought it might be useful to write about the city itself and what makes it so appealing for the many ex-pats and travelers who make it their temporary, and in some cases permanent, home.
If you've ever lived in a major city, such as New York, Chicago, London, Paris, Seoul, Sydney, or many other metropolises, Chiang Mai seems more a large town than an urban center. Once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Mai still bears the ruins of its ancient past.
A red brick fortification, albeit a somewhat dilapidated one, still rings the old city. The faded spires of old wats, or temples, peek over the roofs of guesthouses and busy streets choked with traffic from motorbikes and songthaew taxis. Chiang Mai is also the place to be when celebrating important Buddhist festivals, such as Yi Peng the lantern festival, and Songkran, the massive water fight that marks the Buddhist New Year.
Chiang Mai draws an eclectic crowd that includes backpackers, teachers, NGO workers, yoga instructors, would-be masseurs and masseuses, and online entrepreneurs. Western influence is evident in the shopping malls and variety of international restaurants throughout the city, but Chiang Mai has a heart and culture that is distinctly Thai.
As many who have lived here will tell you, it's a great place to write a novel, start an online business, take a massage course or simply allow yourself to be. And as many, myself included, can attest to, it's also a place that sucks you in and holds you far longer than you ever intended to be here.
Chiang Mai offers much in the way of things to do, but the people are what make this place feel like home. There is a generosity of spirit here that I have rarely experienced anywhere else, with the possible exception of Bohol, in the Philippines. The husband and wife who run the guesthouse where I live are two of the kindest people I've ever met, and their care for everyone living here has created what one friend and fellow resident described as a “little dysfunctional family”. They look out for us when we’re sick, offer us whatever food and drink they have, check in to make sure everyone got home safely after a night out, and keep (playful, not intrusive) tabs on our love lives.
Everyone has stories about the kindness of the locals in northern Thailand. That's not to say that such kindness doesn't happen in the islands down South. I'm sure it does, but I have only been to tourism-heavy islands where the relationship between local business owners and tourists was more antagonistic. I felt I had to be more on my guard about not getting ripped off, especially on Koh Phangan. Read my post on spending the holidays on Koh Phangan and you’ll see why my sense of caution was justified.
This sense of antagonism seems to be a product of a vicious cycle in which obnoxious and disrespectful tourists are rude to local people (I've witnessed some genuinely embarrassing interactions), and local business owners such as taxi drivers blatantly overcharge tourists, simply because they can. So as beautiful as the islands are, I strongly prefer the North. Which is stunningly beautiful in its own way.
Traveling Northern Thailand
Chiang Mai serves as a convenient gateway to this part of the country, as it is the largest and most well-known city in the North. From here, you can get to Chiang Rai, close to the Burma border; Pai, a backpacker paradise, and a number of other lovely but less popular towns and getaway spots.
I can be hyperbolic in my descriptions but I am sincere when I say that the landscapes of Northern Thailand are some of the most beautiful I have ever seen. On bus rides to and from Chiang Rai, I found myself unable to tear my gaze away from the green fields and mountains. Having now been here nearly a year, I feel I'm spoiled but still try to appreciate the scenery whenever I get outside the city.
The area immediately surrounding Chiang Mai is like a treasure trove of amazing places, such as Bua Thong, or the Sticky Waterfalls. Despite water cascading down on you, the limestone that makes up the rocks is sticky enough that you can actually walk up the waterfall.
It seems totally counterintuitive to go climbing up a waterfall but there you have it. Naturally, being the very un-outdoorsy person that I am, I still managed to slip on a moss covered rock at the base of one of the falls but successfully navigated my way back up.
Then there are the floating houses at Mae Ngat Dam, where you can spend a night in a hut built on the water, or Huay Tung Tao, the popular lake just outside the city. The views of the sun-kissed mountains at both of these places are surely what people have in mind when they think “serenity”.
Cost of living
This certainly has played a factor in my willingness to stick around Chiang Mai as long as I have. I was lucky to have been in Thailand when I got robbed on New Year’s Day, because I knew I could stay in Chiang Mai and survive my personal economic recovery thanks to the low costs for essentials such as rent, food and occasional medical care.
Rent varies depending on where you live in the city, but I currently pay about $220 a month for a furnished room that is essentially a private studio. I have a spacious living area, queen-sized bed, private bathroom and shared balcony. That $220 includes all my utilities: water, electricity, fast and reliable wifi. And I can get my clothes laundered right downstairs for $1 a kilo. Not bad.
When it comes to food, meals run the gamut from street food to pricier Western meals - and when I say pricey, I'm talking $6-7 for a decent platter of ribs or a gourmet pizza.
There are street food markets every night of the week where you can buy delicious meals for $1 a serving. My favorite is from a stand at the Chiang Mai Gate market, where a surly woman serves up one hell of a pad kra pow, ground pork and basil over rice. Most street food meals, such as soups, curries and stir fries are about $1 a dish, and the prices don't get much steeper than that. And then there are the fresh fruit shakes and smoothies, the best of which is also found at the Chiang Mai Gate Market from Mrs. Pa, for a whopping $0.64.
Booze is probably the biggest entertainment expense and even that isn't expensive when you consider beer prices in many American, European or Australian cities. A large domestic beer costs between $1-3, getting up to about $6 for a good imported beer.
Most people go in on bottle service with their friends, which sounds all kinds of glam and high-end until you learn what “bottle service” means in Thailand. You typically get a bottle of Sangsom, a brand of Thai whiskey, served with a couple of Cokes and two bottles of soda water as your mixers. All of this usually costs about $12 for the set.
For the record, I usually compare Thai prices with the U.S. prices I was familiar with before moving abroad. I had been living in New York City and Washington, D.C., so the prices here seem almost laughably low compared to living in both of those cities. One month of my rent in D.C. would cover about four months here. And I pay more than a lot of people do in order to live in the Old City. If you look outside the moat area, rent drops significantly even for beautiful, multi-story homes. One friend who used to live here rented a five-story home with two other guys, so each had his own floor, with plenty of space for entertaining. Total monthly rent? $500.
Another perk is the affordable health care situation here. A friend of mine was hospitalized overnight for a stomach infection and paid less than $500 total for a private room, round-the-clock care, and all his IV drips, antibiotics and other medications. That was all completely out of pocket.
The pharmacy around the corner from where I live sells a decent range of birth control pills, including my preferred Canadian brand for $1.68 a pack. That's right. Birth control costs me less than $2 a month. I think I was paying $20 per month as a co-pay when I was living in the States. Other occasional necessities, such as paracetamol, anti-anxiety meds, muscle relaxers, inhalers, vitamins, and antibiotics are also extremely affordable. I don't think I've ever paid more than $6 for any of them.
None of this is to advocate not having insurance or to say that the care and standards here are equal to those in the States. In many cases, they are not. The hospital my friend went to is a highly recommended and American-accredited hospital in the city, but the small, rural hospital I went to on Koh Phangan was pretty primitive.
Sure, it only cost me $400 total for two nights in a private room, the costs of my IVs and medicines, but I would have gladly paid more for better care, as the staff seemed barely competent at best (things like feeding me greasy pork dishes while I had a stomach infection, and not knowing when it was time to change my IV bag didn't inspire much confidence). But it is nice to know that you can afford health care and medical supplies if you need it, and even if you're broke and can't afford insurance at the time.
Travel within Thailand is also extremely cheap. A bus ticket to Pai, a great little town three hours north of Chiang Mai, costs about $5 one-way during the off-season. A train ticket for an air-conditioned sleeper car for the 13-hour journey from Chiang Mai to Bangkok is about $26. I'm pretty sure I've paid triple that for the three-hour journey between Wilmington, Delaware and Washington, D.C. on Amtrak.
Obviously, you get what you pay for. Cheap travel can be uncomfortable and nerve-wracking when you see how keen the drivers are to speed around tight mountain curves, and there are legitimate concerns about the level of cleanliness and maintenance at a budget hostel. But it is great if your priority is stretching your travel savings as far as it will go, or are in the process of a career/life change and aren't flush with cash, or are starting a business and trying to limit personal expenses.
Growth in progress
I was thinking the other day about how grateful I am to be in Asia right now, and have the opportunity to see cities changing and developing before my eyes. I often felt that way in Beijing, where neighborhoods seemed to shift overnight and the constant openings of new bars, restaurants, malls and shops gave the city an air of chaos and excitement.
I feel similarly about Chiang Mai, and am so thankful to be here when so much change is happening in this part of the world. There is so much opportunity here, yet the city has to this point retained its distinction and charm. I'm sure it will look very different in five or 10 years so I'm glad I'm having the chance to see it now, while it's still in flux.
Thanks to Mika Darja Machalek for the Sticky Waterfalls photo.
Read the first post in the Unexpected Year in Thailand series here.