Chiang Mai: A Little Slice of California in Thailand

Chiang Mai is really not so different than San Francisco. For starters, there’s a lot of great Thai food. (It just happens to be significantly cheaper and spicier here!) But ethnic food aside, the cultural shocks and adjustments are very limited. Chiang Mai is a modern city. The second largest in the country. It’s a cultural hub that attracts millions of tourist every year, both for it’s historic significance and it’s natural beauty. And, just like our beloved San Francisco, it’s a city filled with expats from around the globe. (Coincidentally, a friend recently shared this article with a list of top 25 cities to visit in your lifetime and Chiang Mai ranks 24, just ahead of San Francisco!)

Big Buddha, Chiang Mai
Big Buddha, Chiang Mai

Yesterday I worked from a café called the Bird’s Next, whose manager (or perhaps owner) is a long-haired ukulele playing hippie with an American accent. Based on his well-groomed, yet humble appearance (and the all organic menu), he could have easily migrated here from nature-loving Santa Cruz. The café itself is a mecca for expats with apple laptops (myself included, now, so it seems). Half of them are working online, while the other half are reading books like On The Road or talking about meditation with a neighbor. And yes, I LOVE this. Clichés and all. It’s as if someone took my favorite startup café from Mountain View, CA – Redrock Cafe – and moved it to Chiang Mai.

Then there’s the glue that I’m realizing ties this whole little hippie community together – yoga. There are three well known yoga studios in Chiang Mai: The Yoga Tree, NAMO, and Wild Rose. NAMO is the cheapest and my personal favorite. Very welcoming to beginners and holiday-yogis alike. (Though the irony of anyone coming to Chiang Mai to try yoga for the first time is that their instructor will inevitable be British, American, or Australian!) If you attend any of these three schools, you start to see familiar faces. Local, foreign faces. (The same ones that frequent the Bird’s Nest ). And the little community starts to paint itself before you. Granted, this is not the only expat community here, but it’s a rather easy one to identify, and a great way to make yourself at home in Chiang Mai if you enjoy yoga.

Don’t worry, if downward dogs and crescent lunges aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other hobbies to take up in Chiang Mai. And they are not at all unfamiliar! I met a guy a week ago who invited me to come play ultimate Frisbee with him on his team. That’s right, I said ultimate Frisbee. And, no, I am not in California (though sometimes I truly wonder…)  There are also mountains nearby for hiking and rivers for rafting. And while I’ve yet to find adult Tae Kwon Do classes, there’s a lot of Muay Thai training…  I’m pretty sure you can find your adrenaline rush here.

And that brings me to the beauty of living in Chiang Mai and doing freelance work or teaching – the free time you have. You don’t need a lot of money to live in Chiang Mai (which is a stark contrast from San Francisco). For about $150 per month, you can live in a nice guesthouse with everything you need – private room, furnished, air-conditioned, near the heart of town, wifi included. And for about $300/ month you can have a nice apartment with your own kitchen. Meals shouldn’t cost you more than $15 – $20 a day, even if you eat out everyday. (You can easily eat for half that if you need to.)

Other expenses depend on your interests. Naturally, if you like to party a lot, shop a lot, or travel frequently that price will go up. But, bottom line you can have a nice life here for $1000/ month. And if you can manage to bring your San Francisco salary with you, that means you can work a fraction of the time. I guess the question is, are you willing to work less ;)?

Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco
Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco

Personally, I have everything I want in Chiang Mai. I value my free time and having the ability to learn many things over an all-encompassing job. But I know many of my friends back in the Bay Area love their career and/or startup babies in ways that I can never understand. My primary goals are simply to remain physically active, always be learning, and write. Chiang Mai is well suited for people who share these interests and those who desire a more simple life. I don’t really notice that I’m in a foreign country anymore. Being here is just so easy. It’s a treasure find. I smile with gratitude almost daily just walking down the street.

As for getting a visa to stay in Thailand, I’ll just say for now that where there is a will there’s a way. Moving to southeast Asia, it seems to me, is a lot like going to the gym…. Getting here is the hardest part (quitting your job, your apartment or perhaps even your relationship), but once you’re in it’s easy to have a good run. Happy to publish a blog on this later if it interests many of you, but I know there are some sources out there already. (Here is an article by another expat that I found helpful before I moved.) Comments welcome!


5 thoughts on “Chiang Mai: A Little Slice of California in Thailand

  1. So glad you found the post helpful before you left, and it sounds like you have a wonderful routine down there now. Cheers and happy travels. 🙂

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s