I am a big fan of Dan and Ian’s Lifestyle Business Podcasts, and one of their recent topics was on the subject of ‘the ideal place to live and work’; Dan is very keen on the idea of living in Bali, and good luck to him, it is a great little island.
Despite living for 15 months by the sea at Mavisehir I am more of a mountain/forest/nature sort of a person than a sea lover. Therefore I choose not to base myself on a little island such as Bali, a beautiful one such as Palawan, or even my beloved Borneo, but in the Northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. Even though I have chosen to base myself here for the next few months, that does not mean I do not get to travel around. I have recently been in the Philippines, and have had visa runs to Myanmer and Laos.
Also as many of you know I like to move around a bit (I have not lived in my native UK for over 9 years now) and although this post is about the benefits of lifestyle travelling in Chiang Mai, I only expect to be here for a few months before moving on.
So why is Chiang Mai a great place to live for the self employed Internet marketer, budding writer, or whatever your lifestyle choice?
Well, the city itself has a lot going for it and has long been on the backpacking circuit due to its culture and history. In addition to the hundreds of Wats to explore there are lots of activities to try here, such as Massage schools, Cooking Schools, Muay Thai schools, Jungle zip lining, Trekking, Mahooting, Off roading, Gliding/Flying, Mountain Biking, Kayaking and much much more.
These are all great for visitors but as some one living here with plans of running/creating a business you are more likely to be eating the Thai food (Pad Thai 25 baht ~70cents/50 pence) or having a massage (one hour foot massage 150 baht ($5/£3), than learning how to do them; though you should find some time to do at least one Thai cookery lesson.
There are numerous reasons why Chiang Mai is a great place for the budding lifestyle traveller.
1. Chiang Mai has Plentiful Short Term Accommodation
One of the problems with working overseas as a long term traveller is accommodation costs. If you travel to many different places spending a few days at each the costs soon add up, and you tend not to get much work done; travelling all the time can also lead to burn out.
Many people get around this by basing themselves in a city for a few months then backpacking around for a month or so. They will then settle down in a different city/country for a few months before going off on their travels again.
One of the great advantages of Chiang Mai for the lifestyle traveller is the availability of good short term accommodation. The place that I am staying in at the moment requires a one month deposit and monthly rental; there is not a 12 month tie in like you may find in many places (This is one of the reasons I am not currently based in Borneo or Palawan).
Costs are cheap too; my little apartment has two rooms (a nice bedroom and a small living room) + bathroom, a small balcony, Internet (6meg), Air con, Cable TV, Fridge, Microwave, and a view if the mountains for 6700 baht ($225/£140) per month + electricity (about 800 baht ($26/£16)).
2. Easy Availability of Computer Equipment and Accessories
In addition to a good Internet connection one of the things that us lifestyle travellers need is lots of geeky electronics. Chiang Mai has three large computer malls, selling all sorts of things that you may need, from laptop memory, computers and monitors, through to USB power chargers and cables; Prices tend to be cheaper than in places such as Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore; mouse pads, cables etc are dirt cheap.
3. Lots of Non Thai food
I love Thai food, I can eat it all day, every day. Well I used to think so until I moved to Thailand, and though I still have at least one (often two) Thai meals a day I am glad that Chiang Mai seems to have every sort of food available that you can think of. Ranging from Japanese restaurants serving sushi and Ramen noodles; Italian restaurants with wood burning pizza ovens, a fair few Mexican places, and lots of places that serve western foods, such as English breakfasts, American Beefburgers or even a chunk of German Haxe.
4. Great Food Shopping in Chiang Mai
Once you have your own apartment you may find that you want to cook at least a few meals for yourself every now and again. One of the great things about Chiang Mai is the availability of good supermarkets that carry a large array of foods that you miss from back home. Although these items tend to be more expensive than at home it is great to be able to go out and pick up some Stilton cheese, a bottle of French wine, some Italian olives, some Pita bread and some Hummus. People who have been living abroad for a long time know how exhilarating that these little luxuries can be.
As well as having the standard supermarkets such as Tesco, Big C, Carrefore and Tops, Chiang Mai has a jewel in its crown in the Rimping supermarkets; these are a cross between a large delicatessen and a supermarket, and carries lots of ready made treats such as couscous, beef stews and pasta dishes.
5. Chiang Mai Sunday Night Market
As a generalization I don’t like markets, but the Sunday night market (don’t confuse this with the night bazaar) is amazing. All of the local hill tribes (and a few locals I expect) display their hand made wares. Prices are cheap, a fraction of what you see the items sell for back in Europe/North America etc. Though not essential for the lifestyle business traveller, I am sure that many an entrepreneur is making money by shipping these goods back home, or selling items through websites and eBay.
6. Thai Visas for the Lifestyle Traveller
One of the problems about living in Thailand is Visas; if you come in to the country overland you get just 15 days, if you fly in you get 30 days. This puts many people off visiting Thailand. But fear not as someone who wants to spend a long time in Thailand, and does not intend to work here it is easy to get a double entry tourist visa; this will last for 2 x 60 day periods, and can be extended for 2 x 30 day periods at the Chiang Mai immigration office. This allows for a stay of 6 months; which is plenty for most people.
After each ninety day period you will need to nip out of the country; the easiest way of doing this is to get the bus to Mai Sae and spend a couple of hours in Burma. Due to the decline of the US dollar it is much cheaper to enter Burma if you pay in USD ($10) than in THB (500 ($17). This is also the case if you decide to nip across to Laos ($35 if you pay in USD or $50 if you pay the 1500 THB).
Presently the Thai tourist visa is free, but the extensions will cost you 1900 baht each time. It is best to get the visa from your home country before you come out here as many neighbouring countries will only offer single entry tourist visas (60 days, extendable to 90 days), and may charge a processing fee (the Thai Embassy in KL charges 70 RM ($25)). An exception to this is the Thai consulate in Vientiane, Laos; here you can get a double entry tourist visa for no fee.
The procedure at most Thai consulates is that you apply for the visa in the morning (fill out a form; attach two passport photographs; attach a photocopy of your passport; pay a fee if necessary), and collect the visa the following afternoon.
For people who want to stay longer than 3/6 months there are two main options. The first option is to leave the country and apply for another tourist visa; you can only do this for a limited number of times, though you should be fine for at least a year.
The second option is to apply for an ‘O’ visa, You can get one of these if you are visiting a friend in Thailand who will act as a sponsor (eg. girlfriend/boyfriend), creating a business based in Thailand (complicated business laws, suggest that you visit Thai visa forum for further information), retiring, carrying out an education course or volunteering.
With regards to the ‘O’ visa, one of the advantages that Chiang Mai has over many other Thai cities is the availability of Thai language schools and volunteering options. I cannot recommend a Thai language course in Chiang Mai as I have not partaken in one, however the ones ran by Walen, Chiang Mai University and Payap University seem very popular. The CMU also offers a very interesting volunteering option for those who have some spare time and are willing to use their experience to help others through their cultural exchange program.
In addition to the activities mentioned in the introduction there are many entertainments available in Chiang Mai; there is a 3D English language cinema at the Airport Central Plaza; a zoo; lots of great places to eat and drink, and many nightclubs to dance and party in. There are also many festivals throughout the year such as Loy Krathong and Songkran; you will find that the Thais love to party.
8. Getting About in Chiang Mai and the Surrounding Areas
One of the best ways to get around Chiang Mai is to hire a scooter such as a Yamaha Fino, or a Honda Wave. As with accommodation it is much cheaper to rent these by the month than daily; rental costs around 3,000 baht a month ($100/£62). Having a scooter also enables you to see sites in the surrounding area without the hassle of using a travel agency/Tuk Tuk. They are also handy when it is time to nip to the Rimping or the cinema.
One if the good things about Chiang Mai is that even if you do not have a scooter it is easy to get around in Chiang Mai by using a Songthaew or a Tuktuk. Despite being much bigger than a Tuk Tuk it is usually much cheaper to use a Songthaew; journeys usually cost 20 or 30 baht.
As there are many tourists in the area drivers often try it on, and will say 80 baht (or in the case of Tuk Tuks, up to 200 bahts), just hold two fingers up at them and say 20 bahts, they will normally smile and say 40 baht, insist on 20 and they will come down to 30 baht, you can now either jump in the back, or spend another 10 minutes arguing until you get the price down to 20 bahts. Tuk Tuk drivers are another animal, they feed off tourists, it is often difficult to get a price of less than 50 baht, even for a short journey as they would rather wait for a naïve traveller who does not know the true cost of transport.
9. Cost of living in Chiang Mai
I gave the prices of many items such as cars, motorbikes, food and beer in this blog post: Living Costs In Thailand. I feel that 30,000 baht a month (£620/$1000) will give you a very good lifestyle in Chiang Mai. It will allow you to have a nice place to live, eat out everyday, hire a motorbike, go to the movies, treat yourself to things that you miss at the Rimping, and to have lots of nights out on the town.
10. Bad things about living in Chiang Mai
One of the problems about Northern Thailand and Myanmar is that in February they burn the fields to clear the land for crop use, this results in the air quality being very low and somewhat smoggy. If you are living here full time then this is the time to head south to the beaches or travel the surrounding countries. If you are only planning a short time stay in Chiang Mai, then I recommend that you wait until April when the air has cleared up.
A few final thoughts
Having read this blog post you may feel that I am a bit of a wimp of a traveller, wanting all of these home comforts, after all part of the joy of travel is to be able to get away from everything and spend a month next to the beach, reading lots of books, and eating all the delicious local food and drinks. For a short term traveller, who wants to get away from everything for a while, I totally agree; indeed I would go further and say leave your phone and computer at home, and get down to Cherating; don’t waste all your time at the Internet cafe posting on faceboook like the backpackers do.
However for those who are running a lifestyle business, and are looking to have a period of time where they can be creative you will be amazed at how much a few home comforts can make to your life and productivity.