If this were a tell-all book then this would be the point where you gasp in shock and awe – she’s going to lay it all out on the line for the bare minimum of what it costs to live as an expat in Thailand? Really and truly?
Okay, perhaps it’s not quite that exciting, but, even my mother last week on the telephone couldn’t help but dig for the nitty-gritty details on how much I pay to live in Thailand. As a traveler, I’ve always heard that it’s so incredibly cheap to expat yourself in the developing world—and it’s true, it’s cheap!
I’ve paid rent in both Orlando and Los Angeles, and my Thailand living costs have averaged at least one third of my previous U.S. living expenses.
Let’s first look at the hard costs, then I’ll go into what each element translates into in terms of what I get for that price! (All prices in USD). At the end of this post I share a huge list of resources for getting started in Chiang Mai—either visiting or living. This post was written in 2011 but updated as of August 2015.
Total Cost for a Month Living in Chiang Mai, Thailand
These are my baseline costs, or rather more fixed monthly expenses. This is used as a minimum — add your own lifestyle on top of it.
The border runs add to the spice of living here though! Chiang Mai is a great launching point to other areas in Asia for in-depth explorations of Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore and other quick flights and bus rides around Southeast Asia. Factor in a quick one-day border run costs about 1300 baht (700b transportation to the border and 500b for a short-term Burmese visa).
The international flights bracketing my stay in Thailand were roughly $800 each way, so factor that into my “fixed” costs as well.
Then you have the cost of just unexpected life. I’ve had some medical check-ups, my computer cord broke and had to be replaced, toiletries and that type of thing. My medical expenses are under $100 for women checkups and basic blood work and I pay that at Thai hospitals and out of my pocket (and I pay about US$600 per year for annual travel insurance with emergency). These occasional and personal expenses are not included, just the base-line rock bottom costs. :-)
**Alternatively, before you get too far into what this buys, consider that my friends also living here shared their Chiang Mai cost of living for two people living a bit more luxuriously than my budget. They spent under $1500 per month (jointly) and had a beautiful apartment and full kitchen, and also don’t party/drink too much.
**The cost of living, and food-related costs in particular, have risen in the past few years (around the world, but also in Thailand). As of 2015, I would factor in another $100 per month to your baseline costs for the food rise and the fact that Chiang Mai is becoming increasingly popular so there is more competition for the budget expat flats.
So, what the heck do I get for that much money?
Glad you asked. Now we’ll take a look at the value for living there and what precisely I buy:)
Meet My Lovely Little House
The roughly $160 a month pays for my portion of a two bedroom house in the heart of Chiang Mai, within the moat of the downtown inner city (and the $15 maid was provided by my landlord and not optional). I share the house with a roomie and fellow blogger, Jodi of the Legal Nomads food and travel blog, and we jointly pay 10,000 baht (currently 30 baht to the USD) monthly for the house and wifi.
And the house is modern; I had to assure my mother of this. The house has tiled floors, one and a half baths, a tiny kitchen (no stove, those are very rare in Thai houses), a sturdy dining room table perfect for working, and a comfy living room.
Studio apartments run the gamut between 3,500 and 8,000 baht a month. Most offer wifi and on this front, Chiang Mai is a solid choice. Internet is better than many places, but can wildly fluctuate throughout the day (my house has super speedy internet in the am, but not so much in the evening when everyone watches TV and thus slows the cable internet down to a crawl).
UPDATE: I returned to Chiang Mai in 2012, after leaving the house mentioned, and lived in a 5,500 baht one-bedroom with a tiny kitchen and inside the moat. In 2015, you can still generally find a very good deal in the range of $150 to $250 for a budget apartment without A/C.
And the Food that Fills Mah Belly
I regularly chow down on pad thai and pad see ew from the street stalls around town for about 30 baht a meal (a buck!). I add a fresh fruit smoothie to that for a mere 20 baht and call it a meal – totaling out most nights at less than US $2 for fresh, made to order Thai food from smiling street food vendors.
The occasional Western meal jacks the weekly food costs up quite a bit; a thin crust pizza from a farang restaurant sets me back at least 200 baht. I mostly eat Thai food … but I must confess, coffee is a daily habit and ice cream is a weekly addiction. iBerry, a trendy ice cream shop more fitting on a chic corner of Los Angeles than a side-street in Chiang Mai, shakes things up with tangy tamarind sorbet, a spicy roselle, and a cooler full of other flavors. Always different, always worthy of my undying affection.
Update: Food costs across the city rise over time; between 2011-2012 food costs rose about 10 baht per local dish. That is a bit more now. Factor in $50 for general increases as a baseline cost, and adjust more if you have a different standard of living.
My Sleek Ride: Renting a Bike in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai’s small enough to either walk, push bike, or take local song thaews around town, but I prefer a scooter. The rental was cheap enough and zipping around town makes me feel that much more like a local.
Plus, the local Thais burst into giggles when I ride up to the night markets with my roomie on the back. It’s easier for us to take one bike when we’re hitting up the same spots, so we ride Thai-style, with two farang on one bike. And they love us for it.
Update: Costs on motorbike rentals went up $40 more per month as of 2015; still cheaper if you rent from a local though, instead of a shop. And way cheaper if you sign a longer contract. The best rates come when you rent for six months to a year.
Chiang Mai Style Evenings Out
Chiang Mai’s not lacking in choices for evenings out on the town (though I use that loosely, there’s nothing too wild here). But between the karaoke, dance clubs, quiet rooftop bars, and bowling, there is fun to be had in Chiang Mai!
I’m not a party animal, so those who are will definitely find this portion of expenses quite a bit higher if they really like to get their groove on regularly. In fact, add at least $100 per month if you go out 2+ times per week and drink.
Quality of Life in Thailand
Part of why I moved to Chiang Mai was because I had this suspicion that I could maintain a fun and full life, without all the worrying about expenses if I lowered my cost of living. I’m still building up an online income for myself and paying off one last small piece of debt. The best way for me to not go further into debt is, frankly, to stay outside of the US.
The sad fact is, even living rent-free with my dad when I’m back in the US, I live in a perpetual state of fear. I don’t have US health insurance, it’s pricey and even the insurance I can get is lousy. On the flip side, Thailand has great hospitals, checkups are cheap, dental care is cheap and on par with the US, and I don’t live in fear of getting sick and being buried under decades of medical debt.
Many of my long-term goals are fulfilled through living here and continuing my travels and volunteering. I live in the Thai area of town, volunteer locally with Thais, and eat locally, so I have access to immersion in a foreign language (though don’t even ask about my Thai … it’s not going well), and the politics, values, and culture here is a window into something different than what I had for the first 27 years of my life.
I only have a mere two months left in Thailand before I continue onward, but these first three months of stationary travel have been both affordable and enlightening. You can bet I’m already plotting out when I’ll come back to this neck of the woods! :)
Update: I am a traveler rather than a stationary expat in Thailand, however, I return frequently and have lived in Chiang Mai again since I wrote this post (and I lived in Mexico and shared that cost of living here). These are truly my baseline costs and I have friends who live similar lifestyles, who live/work in the city long-term, and they live simply (and locally) on this budget. It’s about your travel style. I don’t party and I love Thai food, so it’s easy for me to eat cheaply and enjoy the many, many free local festivals that happen monthly around Northern Thailand. And I do spend more money on weekend trips around Thailand to other cities; and I spend many months of travel in neighboring countries … then I come back and settle in Chiang Mai since I am a freelancer and enjoy having a great base in Asia to work and travel from—for me, this is my Chiang Mai.
Below are all the resources I have collected over the years to help with a move, living there, researching, etc. Updated as of Aug 2015.
Quick Tips: Chiang Mai Resources for Expats, Moving, & Living Here
The Basics of Preparing to Move/Living in Thailand
- How to Retire Overseas: Everything You Need to Know to Live Well (for Less) Abroad: A great book to get started on being a retiree expat—good reviews, current, and in paperback and Kindle!
- Startup Guide Thailand: Hugely in depth guide to starting a business in Thailand—it covers everything you need and is thoroughly researched and a valuable resource (guides for most major Asian countries too).
- How to Establish a Successful Business in Thailand: Tips for a business operating within Thailand. Sadly no e-version.
- Thai for Beginners: An integrated program for reading, writing, and speaking Thai
- Instant Thai: Very basic program to just get you warmed up with a few words.
- Thai Pimsleur Program: A much more in depth program; start here and then get a private tutor once you’re there!
- Travelers’ Tales Thailand: True Stories: A great book to read for a cultural snapshot of Thailand.
- Private Thai teacher: My niece and I took lessons from Lah and she was great. If you are looking to learn Thai merely for the student visa, however, you will have to go through one of the language schools.
- Travel insurance: World Nomads is the perfect for insurance for covering your health and belongings while you’re in the transition phase of moving overseas, or visiting to scope it all out. It’s a solid company and the insurance plans are designed for extended stays. I’ve used them since 2008.
- Securing Thai expat health insurance: Once you’re in the country living there, you might want local insurance. This expat laid out a really great guide to getting Thai Health insurance.
Where to Stay in Chiang Mai?
- Condominium listings on Chiang Mai Grapevine
- Consider Chiang Mai House if you are looking for help on a long-term house rental.
- List of long and short term accommodation
- And if you’re looking for something specific, go with a real estate agent once you arrive, it’s the norm.
Guides to Visiting/Things to Do in Chiang Mai
- My Mini Guide to Chiang Mai: Places to eat, things to see, where to stay for visitors.
- Travelfish.org’s Guide to Chiang Mai: My favorite resource for recs in SEA.
- 50+ Things to Do in CM: Some great ideas on this large list posted in 2016; many things also in the boozy category for those inclined to that line of fun.
- Sh*t I Didn’t Do in Thailand: Christine shares some of the things you should avoid for ethical reasons.
- A couples budget at Neverending Voyage: A more luxurious monthly budget
- Family budget Almost Fearless: Living here with a toddler
- Family budget from GotPassport: Including costs for a school-age child at an international school.
- Solo budget from Nomadic Notes: James is low-key and also uses Chiang Mai as a work base and local culture.
- Solo mid-range budget for Bangkok: This guy lives a bit nicer and breaks down his monthly in detail for Bangkok.
Misc other tips
- Nancy Chandler Maps: A MUST buy for the city you move to in Thailand. They are simply amazing. Detailed, thorough, and essential.
- Smog in Northern Thailand in the Spring: Jodi gives her take on a particularly bad smog year. And for checking the smog levels right now, go to the Thai government site.
- Team Chiang Mai on Facebook: A FB group with other expats, new and volunteer opportunities in the city.
- Skyscanner.com: A great aggregator for Southeast Asia with the discount airlines in the region.
- Volunteer in Thailand: both short and long term options. Can also search for all of SEA.
- Vegetarian eats in the city
- 30 great cafes for wifi and coffee in Chiang Mai