I first visited Chiang Mai in 2002, and it was sleepy beyond imagination. “I’m not old enough to live in Chiang Mai,” was what I said back then. The frenetic city life in Bangkok still had me under its spell. The half-speed pace of the northern capital was just too slow.
Eighteen years later, it seems Chiang Mai and I have met in the middle. I’ve slowed down to a respectable pace for a 50-something and Chiang Mai has blossomed to earn its longtime nickname “Rose of the North.”
Now I visit Chiang Mai quite often to connect with old friends and enjoy the relaxing pace. Sometimes I succumb to the laid-back yoga-hippy vibe and do nothing. Sometimes I head uptown to hear some live jazz. Every part of town is different. The people are friendly, the weather is perfect, and the cuisine is legendary. The best thing of all… nobody is in a hurry.
I’ve lived over half my adult life overseas. Chiang Mai is my top pick for anyone considering an overseas retirement in Asia.
Here are a few things that set it apart from other parts of Thailand…
1. It’s not Bangkok
With a population of just over 1.2 million, Chiang Mai is not a big city by Southeast Asian standards. Big sister Bangkok boasts 12 million inhabitants, a figure considered an understatement by folks who live there.
Chiang Mai only has a few buildings that could be considered high rise, even those are less than 30 floors. Chinese-style shop-house architecture is the order of the day, with some modern developments mixed in. Roads are fairly good, but the popularity of Chiang Mai as a getaway spot strains the infrastructure on big holiday weekends.
The city viewed from a higher elevation looks like a collection of neighborhoods that grew into each other to fill in the river valley. Chiang Mai is pretty busy, but it’s by no means Bangkok busy.
2. It’s more than a vacation spot
While many tourists visit Chiang Mai, foreigners living there don’t have the feeling they are tourists. In the big seaside resort towns like Pattaya and Phuket, large expat populations have formed. They enjoy the permanent vacation lifestyle but will always feel like tourists. In Chiang Mai, foreigners live all over town, they experience many different lifestyles, and they connect to Thai culture in a more meaningful way. Chiang Mai is not a “tourists-who-stayed” kind of town.
3. It’s plugged in
Many expats and retirees have chosen to live on some of Thailand’s island paradises like Koh Samui or Koh Chang. Chiang Mai is the opposite of an island. Rather than suffer island-style isolation, residents enjoy total connection to the rest of the world. Internet connections are high-speed and reliable, great roads lead in every direction, and an ever-expanding international airport is at your disposal. The overnight train to Bangkok is a trip everyone should take at least once.
Chiang Mai is plugged-in and connected to all of Asia and the world.
4. There’s no big party scene
Nobody comes to Chiang Mai for the nightlife. Bars and restaurants close around midnight, and everything gets wrapped up before 2 a.m. There is no real red-light district, but there are plenty of friendly pubs and a surprising number of live music venues. But if all-night go-go bars or dance clubs featuring famous DJs is your thing, Chiang Mai will disappoint.
What It Costs… And Who Comes Here
Chiang Mai is a wonderful city and you get a lot of lifestyle for your money. But it’s not free. Despite what you may read on the internet, you cannot live a comfortable lifestyle consistently in Chiang Mai for US$1,000 per month. In my opinion, you can live a comfortable life for 50,000 baht per month (about US$1,600). Retirees with a US$2,000 monthly budget could live a great life here.
A conservative count of expats in Chiang Mai today is 30,000. They come from all imaginable walks of life… and many have reinvented themselves in their new home…
I know a stone mason that became an interior designer. I know a ship’s-captain-turned-English-teacher. I know a celebrity hairdresser that owns a bungee jump concession. Diversity is what makes an expat community.
Though the majority of expats live full time here, Chiang Mai also draws the snowbird set…
Last year I met Richard and Gary, a couple of 70-somethings from Minnesota. Every year they come to Chiang Mai to wait out the harsh winter back home. “I get my Thailand bag near the door when I hear the first weather report of snow flurries,” says Richard. “There’s just no need to put up with 30-below.”
Both of these gentlemen are motorcycle enthusiasts and spend time at one of several pubs that cater to their hobby. Chiang Mai bike week in December is the height of their winter season. “Some people go to Florida in the winter,” said Gary. “I been to Florida… it ain’t Thailand.”