how much does it cost to live in Thailand?

A Little Expat Living… Cost of Living in Chiang Mai, Thailand (2021)

Everything I’ve been telling you is true, it’s cheap! I’ve paid rent in both Orlando and Los Angeles, and my Thailand costs have averaged at least one third of my previous living expenses.

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.

A Little Wonderment…A Child’s Journey Through Chinese New Year

Last month’s Chinese New Year celebrations embraced Chiang Mai’s small Chinatown section with wholehearted enthusiasm. The signature red Chinese lanterns adorned every doorway.

Red Chinese lantern at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Every shop entrance strung crimson bulbs from end to end. And the effect, as evening settled over Little China, was faintly magical. The tinted light tinkling out of the lanterns warred with the harsh street lights for ambient command of the Chinese New Year festivities.

Food stall preparations at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

Crowds thronged the main-stage hours before the performances and the long row of stop-light red food stalls offered up mounds of fresh, steaming food for the hungry masses gathering nearby. The mysterious preparations on stage included huge dragon heads, odd without their accompanying long dragon bodies, being unceremoniously hefted into place.

Constructing the stage at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.Crowds make use of foodstalls before the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

And that’s in that moment I wished I could spend the next hour through the eyes of a child…

The little boy is rapt with attention on the empty stage at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.Little girl on her dad's shoulders at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

…the little boy dutifully minds his helicopter parents as food is pushed between his parted lips. Mechanical chewing as the child eats his food but refuses to move his glance from the on-stage preparations; he’s fearful of missing a single moment of the performance, which in his mind will jump-start into life the very moment he loses focus.

A jumble of balloons briefly obscures the stage and the child is distracted; the shininess arrests his attention from the stage just as the next mouthful of food is shoved into his gaping mouth. He manages to utter a muffled grunt and point, an obvious and instantaneous request for the newest object of his fascination.

Huge bouquet of balloons at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.Cotton candy! Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The parents confer while the child already begins to plot out which balloon is the best decoration for his petite wrist; he knows that today is a celebration. And that means balloons.

And cotton candy.

The vendors pick their targets well and even a few adults (including a tall, farang red-head) are captivated by the thought of sticky-sweet, colorful cotton candy.

The vendors pass, the chink and jingle of a few extra Thai baht audibly weighs down their pockets as they scan the crowds for more easy targets.

Then the murmur and sudden silence of the crowd confirms the child’s suspicions. The moment he was thoroughly engrossed in his cotton candy and balloons he missed the opening beats of the performance.

Dragon performers leap between posts at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.Standing tall and proud, the dragon show at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.Dragon show and fireworks at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

A dragon leaps onto the stage. The legs underneath the dragon look awfully human-like but the child’s eyes are invariably drawn, instead, to the enormous dragon head bobbing across the stage. The dragon’s blue eyes light up with a flash and the child knows: this performance is for him alone.

In fact, he’s so engrossed in the jumping, jiggling, gyrating dragon he scarcely notices as his mom gently pries the cotton candy out of his fingertips and his dad lifts him overhead and settles him firmly into place. Dad’s shoulders feel so natural so he rests his hands on his dad’s forehead and settles in for the rest of the show.

Amazed by the dragon performance at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.Ladyboys dancing on stage at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The dragons give way to the giggle-inducing ladyboys who dance and prance around the stage with umbrellas and balls. Their antics are meant in jest and the crowd can’t help but chuckle right alongside the child.

Dancers, no older than the child, delicately walk onto the stage. The heavy makeup, applied with absolute precision, cannot hide the fact that they’re just children. The boy, still hunkered down on his dad’s shoulders, imagines that one day his little sister might dance on a stage like this too.

Child dancer rapt with attention at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.Dancers watch and wait their turn on stage at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.Dancer's ornate hair designs at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The music changes and just as his attention starts to drift, the dragon is back. Except, this dragon is different. The dragon’s rainbow of colors trigger a different part of the child’s imagination and instead of asking to get off of dad’s shoulders, he imagines himself a dragon slayer. He is up on stage and everyone is cheering him on, chanting his name, and relying on him to save the day.

Lite up dragons at the Chinese New Year festivities in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The dragon show is abruptly over; the boy lost track of time and didn’t even notice the minutes tick by as the dragon show progressed. His baby sister is getting tired and mom and dad insist it’s time to leave. More dancers are up on stage but his dad has already started to weave through the crowd. The child throws one last thirsty glance back at the stage.

The Chinese New Year festivities will continue throughout the night, but every cotton candy sugar coma has to wear off at some point. The child lets out a plaintive whine, he doesn’t want to miss a second of the shows, but already his parents have turned the corner.

The festival is over for him. But tonight?

Tonight he’ll dream of dragons.

_______________________________________________________

A big thanks to my friend Claire Balgemann, she was with me for the festivities and several of these are her photos  :-)

A Little Chiang Mai Living…Routine is It’s Own Adventure

A routine forms when you hunker down in one place, when you pick a spot and decide “hey, I’m going to live here; not just travel through, but live here.” Is it safe to admit I thought the routine and normalcy would still elude me? Coming to Chiang Mai was the next leg in my wanderings; I didn’t realize that the entire pace of my life would slow back down into a routine.

I’ve been in near constant motion for more than two years; my months home this fall were a break of sorts, but even then I was busy bouncing between busy state capitals, countless couches, guest bedrooms, and even a floor or two as I visited friends and family around the U.S.

I was still on the roller coaster adventure of perpetual travel.

A monk at the Silver Temple in Chiang Mai, Thailand takes the offerings off of Ganesh for the evening.
A monk's daily routine at the Silver Temple: taking the offerings off of Ganesh each evening

Now I’m here, living in Chiang Mai, and it’s so very normal.

I have a home. A really cute one too. I have an address and rent, my trusty backpack is shoved deep in the corner of my room from lack of use and the street vendors near my house smile and wave out of familiarity.

I have a routine.

Curious emails have begun to flit into my inbox:

What do I do here every day? Why Chiang Mai? Is it what I expected?

This is the first time I’ve stopped and actually lived somewhere outside of the US.

And I like it, a lot. There’s a community here in Chiang Mai; friends, food, and decent wifi are the constants.

Veggie street food lady in Chiang Mai, Thailand
My favorite vegetarian street food vendor – no MSG and always served with a big smile!

And yet it’s not what I expected entirely either. The normalcy makes it easy to  float through days in a routine without paying close attention to what’s happening…and then sometimes very little actually happens. Sadly that has included work; I get distracted by the food, people, and culture maybe even more regularly than I did on the road. Now that wifi and work aren’t challenging (easy connections, tons of time on my hands) less seems to get done.

But then again, that’s partly why I came here, just to see what it’s like to live somewhere else. So I can report back to you now, people over here live in routines too.

I’ll appease those wondering souls concerned about what it’s like to live here in Chiang Mai. It looks something like this…

A day in Shannonland, Chiang Mai Edition:

4:30a – The smell of frying garlic from the restaurant next door suffuses the room and I dream of food.
6:30a – Wake up! The sun’s up, the birds outside compete in a loud and aggressive morning chirping contest and I’m hungry enough to eat an entire garden (don’t feel like the “hungry enough to eat a horse” analogy fits?!).
8a -12:00p – Ponder the Thai National Anthem as it blares through the street speakers around town at 8am every day…then work. The internet is only good in the morning at our house, so it’s a Western breakfast of yogurt, fresh fruit, and work.
12:00p – Scoot over to the veggie lady’s buffet nearby for a spicy lunch with an assortment of tasty and convincing fake meats; their complete mastery of seitan here in Thailand is, in a word, delicious.
1p-6:00p – Thank the heavens for the 99baht ($3) coffee and wifi buffet – a few afternoons each week I buffet it up for hours and hours.
6:30p – Team Chiang Mai (all the expats in town) meet for dinner a nearby night market so we can all find our favorite foods (that way the rest of the team isn’t forced to eat at veggie restaurants all the time). Then it’s a free-for-all for the rest of the evening…sometimes a local festival, other days just chatter over drinks.

Blissfully normal, right?!

I came here for the ability to hunker down and maintain a work schedule while still abroad and in a different culture. And I’m welcoming a routine and framework for my life. I like it. And I love the smiles of recognition and genuine warmth from the locals I encounter on a daily basis.

Delicious steam squash and taro sit on a street cart in Chiang Mai, Thailand.Sweet desserts at the Chiang Mai Gate Night Market.

So, why Thailand for this first foray into expat-ism?

Because establishing a mini-life and routine here in Chiang Mai is an adventure of its own and I wanted to see if I like it. My roomie and I navigate the street food stalls with expertise – we cobble together a mish-mashed dinner from our favorite street food vendors. An ear of corn from the grinning lady at the edge of the night market, a wave to the man selling chopped fruit.

The nods of acknowledgment and smiles makes it a bit like the Cheers sentiment. I like it here because “everyone knows my face” (not so much my name, I’ll admit, we haven’t gotten that far yet ;-).

Motorbiking with my roomie around town is the norm in Chiang Mai, Thailand
My roomie and I zip all over town on our scooters :)

Everyone here is living their lives too, they have their routine and for the first time in a long time I’m slipping into a routine with those around me, fitting my life into my surroundings, and the familiarity of food I know, a constant culture (less chance of embarrassing snafus like my roomie’s recent “May I fart?” debacle).

This venture into a more sedentary nomadism is, well, progressing. I can’t yet decide if I’ll pick back up traveling or move to another place…who knows?! Still figuring that out.

Any burning questions for me? The next post in the series I’ll share the costs of living here in Chiang Mai, arguably one of the more appealing reasons I moved her too!

A Little Festival…Thailand’s Northern Rose

If you’ve ever wondered what Chiang Mai, Thailand will feel like during the zombie apocalypse then hit the streets of the old city, inside the moat, around 9:00am on the Saturday of the city’s Flower Festival Parade. The parade starts at 8:00am just outside of the moat, near Warorot Market, and the rapid exodus of city inhabitants leaves the streets inside the moat uncommonly quiet.

Early morning food prep at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, Thailand
Food vendors set up for crowds in the early morning hours of the Flower Festival

As the Rose of the North, Chiang Mai’s sweet nickname is never more applicable than the first week of February, when the city is flooded with colors and sweet scents for the Chiang Mai Flower Festival. The Flower Festival is an annual event – which is really no surprise because Chiang Mai likes festivals (cue the montage music for the Bo Sang Umbrella Festival last month).

Women in traditional Thai dress at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, ThailandPretty women parade at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, Thailand

I can’t help but love these local Chiang Mai festivals; it’s as though the locals are vying for the title of  “most enthusiastic city in the world.” Each fesitval is celebrated with varying amounts of gusto and the Flower Festival tips the scales on the high end of gusto-y-ness.

Flower floats at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, ThailandFlower dragon at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, Thailand

The three day festival permeates every aspect of the city for the weekend—even the Chinese New Year was rolled right into flower festivities and the joint celebration double the city’s number even . Plant vendors plant their stands on the roadsides around the moat for three days and city’s large east entrance, Tha Pae Gate, is overrun with a stage, food stalls, flower showcases, beauty pageants and people.

Oh, lordy, the people.

Both breeds of tourists descend on Chiang Mai for the three day festival, foreigners and Thais, and the clogged streets are a stark contrast to that zombie-apocolypse I mentioned earlier.  Locals on motorbikes mazing through the city, going about their business and artfully weaving through instant road blocks and darting around slow-moving tourists.

At the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, Thailand
Prettily dressed woman carry signs and flowers in the parade

The morning of day two though starts with an early morning mad dash (and that’s a dawn dash to anyone hoping for a seat in the risers) to the stage outside Wororat Market for an hour and a half of enormous flower floats and pretty performers.

Orchids at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, Thailand
Famous Chiang Mai orchids

The shining glory of the weekend are the orchids, healthy, beautiful, and deeply hued Chaing Mai orchids; the city is world renowned for their breeds of orchids the climate .

Beauty pageant contestants at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, ThailandThai man in the festival parade at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, Thailand

My friend Claire was visiting for the weekend and we were both surprised by the school bands parading through the streets – they added a nice element of pep and enthusiasm to the festivities but I had no idea Thai schools had traditional high school style bands as well!

Thai Ladyboy at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, ThailandSchool band at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, Thailand

What parade is complete without some lady boy action and dancers?

Dancer smiling at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, ThailandUmbrellas and sunlight at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, Thailand

The city swells in size like a puffer fish for the annual Flower Festival and the freshly planted flowers and artful arrangements are a testament to how a city can transform itself in just a matter of days with the right impetus. Chiang Mai is a decent sized city (and that means a fair bit of smog, traffic and garbage to accompany it) so I fell in love a bit more when I saw her gussied up and outfitted to the nines with fresh flowers in the city’s gardens,  streets cleaned of garbage, and dressed up in first-date attire.

More photos and a thanks to Claire for allowing me to use some of her shots!

A Little Difficulty…Can I Please Live in the Matrix?

Monk in Thailand
Thai monks takes a break from his sunset sweeping

So, I’ve started taking Thai lessons – just one class so far, and yet I’ve come to this ripe conclusion: I may have been a little crazy in thinking I could learn Thai.

Thai is hard. (And I swear, I wasn’t saying that in a whiny voice…) I’m living in Thailand for four months and that should technically be enough to learn a passing fair bit of Thai, especially if you ask Benny the Irish Polygot (who claims three months is enough for conversational mastery of any language).

The thing is, as far as the tonal languages go, Thai is fairly easy from a grammar point of view. But for a non-tonal language speaker, this is a whole new ballgame and a far cry different from the romance languages I’ve already mastered (Spanish and English), my Italian comes and goes relative to my proximity to Italy, and American Sign Language really isn’t coming in too handy yet on my world travels.

A Word about Tones…

Tonal languages may use the exact same word itself to signify different words and the word meaning changes depending on the tone you use. There are five tones in Thai: low tone, mid tone, high tone, a rising tone and a falling tone.

Take the word “mai” (written in Roman English…obviously…not Thai script :) This means anything from “not” to “wood” and then “silk,” “burn,” and “new” and is a question indicator to boot!

Confused yet? I Am.

The one thing I have going for me is the fact that I love learning new languages.

Or any new skill for that matter.

I like knowledge as whole.

I also like sharing new knowledge, a slightly obnoxious quality if you’re a friend of mine who listens to me prattle on about my latest issue of National Geographic. It sounds corny, but I do believe those “knowledge is power,” all knowledge is worth having,” lines (the mysterious) they feed you.

So, with all of this in mind, the Thai language is high on my list over the next four months, and photography comes in as a close second. I won’t go so far as to pretend I’m going to master either skill in four months, but I’m in a perfect spot for learning both right now and they’re both things on my life list that I can then check off.

Street food in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Gratuitous street food photo in Chiang Mai, Thailand

A shout-out is in order to Daniel from Canvas of Light, he’s my photography tutor; he’s swell. And in addition to drawing me a lovely little triangle of ISO, aperture, and shutter speed for my first lesson, the markets, wats, and people of Chiang Mai are shaping up as perfect backdrops for future photography trails!

That rounds out two of my own personal learning goals for the coming few months, what skills, knowledge, languages are you working on right now? Any fun classes or things you can cross off your own bucket list before summer?

Bo Sang Umbrella Festival, Thailand

A Little Craftsmanship… How to Visit Bo Sang, Town of a Thousand Umbrellas

Hot mid-day sunshine baked the streets and cast a white glare over everything. With the sun high overhead, the umbrellas popped in full color. A riot of rich reds and lush purples spilled into the streets. Unlike some Thai festivals, where the crush of bodies becomes unbearable, Bo Sang’s annual Umbrella Festival is an intimate, gorgeous, and quaint occasion. Located just a bit outside of Chiang Mai—a tourist hotspot and my temporary home—Bo Sang it’s unexpectedly cute.

The town is small enough that I paused when leaving the songthaew, a local form of transportation. At first glance, I wasn’t sure the driver had dropped me in the right spot! Although it was surprisingly quiet, the extensive parasol decorations brightly lit my way into town, which develops a bit as you walk further from the highway and into the center of Bo Sang.

Once I looked closely, it was silly to have missed that this is clearly the home to northern Thailand’s annual umbrella festival. The parasols covering the entrance indicate that hand-crafted parasols are a deep part of this town’s identity. They serve as both a resume and testament to the skill of these artisans. Within seconds of passing under the gates, it’s glaringly apparent that handcrafted parasols and umbrellas have put this town on the map.

While not an ancient traditional skill, Bo Sang’s history of umbrella craftsmanship dates back about hundred years—maybe even two hundred, according to some.

When is the Bo Sang Umbrella Festival?

What’s more, the annual Umbrella and San Kamphaeng Handicrafts Festival and has also completely changed Bo Sang’s place on the tourist map. Although you can (and should!) visit Bo San at any time of the year, the Umbrella Festival is a three-day event that takes place every year on third weekend in January.

In 2020, that means the Bo Sang Umbrella Festival is taking place January 17, 2020 to January 19, 2020.

Bo Sang Umbrella Festival, Chiang Mai, Thailand
The colorful and decorated entrance to the Bo Sang Umbrella village, which you can visit any time of the year.

Hand painted umbrellas are a beautiful feature of the Bo Sang Umbrella Festival outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand.

The painted umbrellas line the streets in a colorful parade of parasols that are only outshone by the actual parade.

Colorful wares pop from all of the shops in the Bo Sang Umbrella Village.
Colorful wares pop from all of the shops in the Bo Sang Umbrella Village.

Old bicycle at the Bo Sang Umbrella Festival, Chiang Mai, Thailand
A charming old bicycle is outfitted with flowers in honor of the annual Bo Sang Umbrella Festival.

History of Bo Sang as an Umbrella Village

These gorgeous umbrellas pose an intriguing question for the curious. In a land of rice paddies and a culture long emphasizing agriculture for survival, how did Bo Sang develop into this anomaly? There is a beautiful craftsmanship and artistic flare in the umbrellas, showing a range of skills and creativity that indicate that this entire town has embraced the art form. What’s more, from my research this is the only town like it in Thailand.

There are certainly other towns where the locals retain a specific craft. But if you want a handcrafted parasol with delicately painted floral patterns and landscapes, you go to Bo Sang, Thailand.

The town is dwarfed in size by nearby Chiang Mai. Bo Sang’s big brother is perched a mere six miles away, but Bo Sang holds a very different personality. None of the wares are marked with a “made in china” sticker. Instead, I walked up to an umbrella artisan and could ask their story, learn their history. As I walked through the town’s main street, I saw dozens and dozens of artisans concentrating on the delicate work it takes to create these beautiful designs.

These traditional umbrellas are made from Saa paper, which is processed from mulberry bark. Beyond that, historical information is scarce. According to the best history I could find on how umbrella crafts came to Bo Sang, a wandering Thai monk brought the process back from Burma. Bo Sang was his hometown and when he returned with this process, the locals embraced the art, turning to the craftsmanship needed to make these umbrellas every autumn, once their field work, the harvest was celebrated at the Loy Krathong Lantern Festival, and they had the winter season for other pursuits.

Decorations adorn everything, Bo Sang Umbrella Festival, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Decorations adorn everything, even fences, in the Bo Sang Umbrella Village.

Dancers prepare, Bo Sang Umbrella Festival, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Umbrella cultural dance, Bo Sang Umbrella Festival, Chiang Mai, Thailand

crepes in bo sang, chiang mai, thailand

performers at the bo sang umbrella festival

Entrant in the Beauty Pageant, Bo Sang Umbrella Festival, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Travelers most often purchase an umbrella as a souvenir, but locals use them as parasols in the sun, or even as traditional umbrellas in light rain since the delicate paper is coated with special water-repellant oils.

One unexpected highlight is the Bo Sang Beauty Pageant Bike Parade. It gave me a giggle to see these beautiful Thai women ride through the streets with their stop-light red parasols, their bikes so new the wrapping was still on them! Each woman smiled big as she passed through the streets. There is also festival food, dancing and performances, and a host of other activities that make for an entertaining day.

The festival is quaint and cute and a surprising slice of sunshine, color, and craftsmanship. If you’re in town, it’s an easy way to pass a couple of hours and to escape the noisiness of Chiang Mai!

Quick Tips: How to Visit Bo Sang near Chiang Mai, Thailand

Where: Bo Sang; a solid 20 minutes outside of Chiang Mai, Thailand by songthaew or motorbike. You can view it on the map here.

When: Annually, the third weekend of January. In 2020, that means it runs Jan 17th – 19th.

How: To get to Bo Sang, take a white songthaew out of Chiang Mai (easily done from Warorot Market) and ask for the price to Bo Sang (about 20 baht). Some songthaew won’t be traveling in that direction, so you might have ask a few! Tuk-tuks will charge a bit more, but they will also easily drive you out there! Alternatively, rent a scooter and drive yourself! The white songthaew will drop you at the corner and you will then need to walk a bit to get into the heart of town. If you don’t know how to use the songthaew system, I have a thorough guide to transportation in Thailand here.

Tips: You can buy very small umbrellas, which make beautiful souvenirs. Kitty-corner to the festival street is an array of food stalls with cheap, fresh local food (35-60 baht a meal). Bring sunscreen and a water-bottle as it’s hot and there is not a lot of shade in Bo Sang (or course, you can also easily buy a parasol while there). The official parade takes place on the evening of day one (Friday). Other than that, you just need a couple hours to explore.

What to Do in Thailand: I wrote a full guide to Traveling Thailand with suggestions and tips from my years living and traveling the country. And if you’re hanging around Chiang Mai, I also wrote an insider’s guide to my favorite spots in the city. If you’re visiting whole of Thailand, the Lonely Planet Thailand is actually solid—it has valuable transport information that will make your backpacking trip easier!