The first time I visited Thailand, I couldn’t get over how cheap Chiang Mai was. In my Day in the Life post, I guesstimated my monthly expenses might come in as low as ~US$500, and committed to tracking every last baht to find out the actual figure. Finally, the deed is done! After spending a cumulative six months in this city across three separate visits, I’ve crunched the numbers on all my spending. What follows is a full cost-of-living breakdown including everything from insurance to visas to bank fees – all the nitty-gritty stuff which bloggers seem to conveniently forget about or gloss over.
Before we get into it, a couple of caveats on the frugal lifestyle.
One of the main attractions of moving to a developing country is geoarbitrage; the ability to earn an income in Western dollars, and spend it in baht or pesos or dong. Chiang Mai is a prime destination for visiting ‘digital nomads’ and entrepreneurs, who can make good money online while spending far less than they would at home.
Digital nomads fall into two camps: The desperate dreamers with no skills and no capital, and the ‘real’ ones with existing clients and income, building actual businesses.
The dreamers usually get caught up in pyramid schemes, which involve moving to the promised land of Chiang Mai, pretending to have an extravagant and exotic lifestyle while living like paupers, then trying to sell an ebook or scammy course to bring over more clueless wannabes. They’re drawn here like moths to a flame because it’s cheap, which is crucial given they have no savings and no real prospect of making money. The dreamers are generally mocked and reviled by the ‘real’ nomads, and probably for good reason.
(UPDATE: I’ve since explored this phenomenon at length in Living the 4 Hour Work Week: How Tim Ferriss Created a Monster)
The real nomads, in turn, can be smug and dismissive of anyone who doesn’t feel the need to recreate an opulent Western standard of living everywhere they go. They don’t see that frugal habits can help maximise the runway time for a new business, or free up time to work on passion projects. They don’t understand that simple living can be rewarding in and of itself, and not everyone cares about fancy stuff. No-one’s right or wrong here – it’s just a different trade-off.
Finally, there’s a small group of people – mainly expats – who think digital nomads and backpackers are parasites. This is despite the fact these travelers are spending money that wouldn’t otherwise have entered the economy, at no cost to local taxpayers. I’m not sure what these expats think of the average Thai person, who lives far more cheaply than even the most frugal Westerner, and in a cash economy, probably doesn’t pay much in the way of tax.
To wrap up this housekeeping: If you’re reading this post because you’re about to move to Chiang Mai on a wing and a prayer, kindly slap yourself in the face and reassess your life choices. If you’re reading it because you enjoy simple living and don’t care what snobby expats think, welcome!
At the end of the article, we’ll look at some strategies for how you could pretty easily bring this under $500, if you were so inclined. First I’m going to lay out each category, and explain what I specifically did to keep my spending down. This is not meant to be a prescriptive guide, but an illustration of what’s possible.
House-shares isn’t much of a thing here, which is a shame (I prefer living with other people). It’s also not that surprising, considering you can get your own apartment for next to nothing. There are places you can rent monthly, but the price is usually cheaper if you’re willing to lock it in for longer. My go-to building is in Santitham, an excellent neighbourhood between the Old City and the hipster mecca of Nimman, with studio apartments starting from 3000 baht (~$86) a month. The Chang Phueak district by the university is also very affordable, and very liveable. You can find a selection of apartment options under 10,000 baht here.
Buying booze in bars and restaurants is crazy cheap, which is awesome, albeit slightly dangerous for lightweights like me. In the shops, it’s about the same price as it is back home, or maybe a little more expensive. While I’ve grown quite fond of the local beers, I do miss my New Zealand wines, which are eye-wateringly expensive here. Besides making the most of the duty-free allowance, the best solution I’ve found so far is buying 5 litre casks of Château d’ Cardboard.
Your condo will charge you about 6 to 9 baht per ‘unit’ (what we would call a kilowatt hour). Air-conditioning is the biggest drain, but I’m almost always fine with just using a fan. I also prefer taking cold showers in the hot months, which maybe helps explain why my bills are so low.
I pay a flat 100 baht per month for water, which seems reasonable. It’s OK to boil tap water for coffee and tea, but you’ll also need drinking water. Don’t be that guy who buys a new plastic bottle from 7-11 every day – there are machines all over the city where you can fill up for 1 baht per litre.
Wednesdays is cheap night at the cinemas in Maya Mall – 100 baht movie tickets! On the weekend, a group hikes up Doi Suthep, while keen cyclists ride to the top and coast back down at break-neck speed. There’s a lake for swimming, waterfalls, a man-made ‘grand canyon’, and various other outdoor attractions with token entry fees usually around 50 baht.
Hiking the Pilgrim’s Trail to Wat Phra That: An invigorating way to kick off the weekend.
When it comes to socialising, there are dozens of meet-ups for anything from boardgames to laughing yoga to business networking, which come at the price of a cup of coffee, a meal, or a couple of drinks – the BoredBreaker calendar of events is handy for finding out what’s on.
My apartment building has free WiFi, which is handy. If you need to install your own, prices start from about 500 baht per month. I use a prepaid Thai SIM card (AIS) to buy 1GB of data for 150 baht, which almost always lasts me a full month because there’s WiFi everywhere. I’ve heard of people spending enormous amounts on data plans, but I guess they do a lot of work when they’re roaming. This is not my area of expertise, so if anyone has any tips for the best data packages, sing out.
Chiang Mai is flat as a pancake, and logically laid out (I’ve managed to get lost several times, but only because I have the sense of direction of a headless chicken). From my ‘hood, I can cycle pretty much anywhere I need to go. While the traffic is mildly terrifying for newcomers, I no longer have to change my undies after each bike ride.
When I’m drinking or going further afield, I take songthaews, which are the big red trucks with the double row of benches in the back (‘song’ = two, ‘taew’ = row). Songthaew drivers are expert at ripping off dumb farangs, so learn this rule: A shared ride in and around the Old City should never be more than 20 baht (~60 cents). If you’re going to a specific location, or it’s an unusual hour, expect to pay up to 50 baht. If you want to go somewhere out of the city, get a group together and charter a truck for the day. While you go off and explore, the driver will take a nap in the parking lot until you’re ready to head back.
The other option is to hire or buy a scooter, which is more expensive but gives you more autonomy. Be sure to get an international permit before you leave home. I had to crawl through the bowels of Thai bureaucracy to get a local licence (detailed instructions here) not only to save money on police
bribes fines, but because it would invalidate my insurance to drive illegally – more on this later.
Initially I ate out for every meal, but these days I prefer to make my own breakfast and occasional lunches at home. Grocery stores like Tops and Rimping have all the staples at pretty decent prices. If anyone knows where I can buy cheap cheese, I will give you my first-born child.
UPDATE: Makro sells 2kg blocks of Anchor New Zealand cheese for 800 baht, and I hereby acknowledge that Daniel J will be the recipient of my firstborn.
Supermarket fresh produce isn’t great value for money. Mostly I’m too lazy to make separate trips to the local markets, but you could definitely save a few bucks here and there by doing so.
As far as eating out goes, I might as well give instructions for how to tie your shoes. Every street food stall is ridiculously cheap, as are most of the casual restaurants. Learn some basic Thai phrases so you can ask for specific dishes, a little spice, no sugar, etc. I sort of follow the 80-20 rule: Most of the time I eat cheap (>50 baht a meal), but I enjoy a more luxurious restaurant meal from time to time (<200 baht).
It’s a good idea to apply for a 60 day tourist visa before you arrive in Thailand, which generally costs about $30-$40. You can extend it for another 30 days for 1900 baht by visiting the immigration office. For a full three month stay, that’s an average cost of about $1 a day.
The cost in my breakdown is higher because it includes one ‘visa run’, which involves paying to get into Laos or another country, only to immediately leave again with a fresh Thai visa. I’ve only done this once, because I prefer to just go travel somewhere else for awhile. For example, Chiang Mai gets pretty smoggy during the burning season, so I’ve spent the last three months in Indonesia, India and Nepal.
It gives me the heebie-jeebies that so many people don’t have travel insurance. This must be how mums feel all the time. I have nothing worth stealing and I don’t care about missing flights, but if I get pasted in a scooter accident, I refuse to foot the bill for getting scraped off the road and taken to hospital (or evacuated halfway across the world to my beloved free public health system). My insurance plan from Atlas costs less than a dollar a day, so it’s hardly breaking the bank.
There’s another company called World Nomads which is pretty popular because it’s specifically tailored to long-term travelers. I would have gone with them, but they required a motorbike licence in my home country to cover me for scooter crashes abroad (I have a Thai licence, but not a New Zealand one). Always carefully check for this sort of fine print.
With any form of insurance, the best ways to slash the cost are to make the excess (co-pay) really high and ditch any trivial add-ons. Personally, I only care about the major surgeries and medical evacuation which could bankrupt me. Minor stuff I can take care of myself.
Bank and currency exchange fees
If you’re going to be in Thailand for more than a few months, consider opening a local bank account (instructions here, and yes, you can absolutely do it on a Tourist Visa). I didn’t get one until near the end of this six month period, which meant I was getting absolutely nailed by fees. Withdrawing 10,000 baht cost me a total of 600 baht by the time I paid the local ATM fee, my ‘other bank’ fee, and the foreign exchange conversion.
These days I use Transferwise to move money from home to my Bangkok Bank account, and withdraw it without paying a bean. Not only do I eliminate the ATM fees, I get the actual mid-market exchange rate instead of getting ripped off by banks. Transferwise clips the ticket to the tune of 1 per cent, plus $2 per transaction.
For every $1000 I withdraw, previously ~$60 would be chewed up in fees. Nowadays, it’s only ~$12. Conclusion: Transferwise rules.
If you don’t have a bank account, withdraw as much cash as you can in one transaction. The TMB opposite McDonalds on Nimman road allows withdrawals of 30,000 baht, as do some Krungsri ATMs in more affluent areas. If you take your card and passport to Bangkok Bank, you can also withdraw cash without paying the local ATM fee. These strategies reduce the cost to ~$30-$33 per $1000. Thanks Massimo, Matt, Brent and Ivan for the tips!
Most of my clothes don’t require washing very often – merino wool is woven with some sort of black magic – so I don’t do much laundry. There are shops everywhere with coin-operated machines starting from 20 baht. If you have a rooftop or balcony, your clothes will dry in minutes during the heat of the day.
I lost so much weight in Asia that my carefully selected travel wardrobe no longer fitted, so I had to buy a bunch of new stuff. There’s a string of secondhand stores along Atsadathon Road, heading up the Tesco Lotus from the north-east corner of the Old City. The Chiang Mai University market also has a good range, and basics like T-shirts and flip-flops are cheap just about anywhere. On the flipside, it’s been difficult to find some of the high-quality gear (like merino) that I wanted, so sort that out before you arrive.
The cost breakdown excludes totally unrelated things I bought, like a GoPro and a new laptop, but includes cleaning gear, bins, cutlery, linen, dish towels, etc. I picked all of this up at once from a little general store near my apartment, and it was insanely cheap – something like 500 baht for the entire set up.
For bigger-ticket stuff, join the Facebook groups: Secondhand Chiang Mai, Chiang Mai Buy, Sell, Swap and Secondhand Bicycles Chiang Mai. You can find pretty much anything you need, at major discounts to buying new.
Living on less than $500 a month
All up, the monthly cost is about US$580. Can we improve on this enough to get below the $500 mark? Looking at this handy pie chart, I can see three easy ways to trim the fat.
- Currency fees. I didn’t set up a bank account and start using Transferwise until the end of this period, which would save another $15 or so a month.
- Boozing. If I didn’t drink or smoke, my expenses would almost immediately fall under the $500 threshold.
- Eating out. My love for food gobbles up a big slice of the pie. If you stick to cheap eats, you could easily save $100 or so a month.
This city is already so cheap that by pushing the budget lifestyle to an extreme, you’d quickly run up against the law of diminishing returns. Go ahead by all means, but be mindful of crossing the line between frugality and being cheap. People get confused by this, even though it’s a clear distinction: Deny yourself all you want, and I’ll applaud your steely self-discipline. Save money at the expense of others, and you’re a low-down cheapskate. One guy living here bragged about taking his own rice to restaurants. Don’t be that guy.
Chiang Mai is basically paradise for people who love the simple life – and what a life it is!
“There are two ways to be rich: One is by acquiring much, and the other is by desiring little.”
— Jackie French Koller
If enough people find this useful, I’ll repeat the exercise for other cities in which I spend enough time to build up a decent log of spending data. [Update: Check out Bali on a Budget] If anyone has more Chiang Mai tips to share, please let me know in the comments, and I’ll update the article accordingly. Thanks for reading!