This was the city in Thailand we were most excited to visit since it’s a great location for expats. We had already stayed in 7 cities in SE Asia over the previous 2 months so we were ready to slow down and try to live like locals as much as possible. We decided to stay in Chiang Mai for 3 weeks and get to know that location as much as possible during our stay. Unfortunately for us, things got complicated and our stay in Chiang Mai did not go exactly as planned.
Before arriving in Chiang Mai we stayed in Phuket and Koh Samui so I compared the cost of living in Chiang Mai with those 2 popular tourist destinations using numbeo.com. The first comparison with Koh Samui was not completely satisfying since 3 out of 6 categories showed “Not enough data.” It does seem odd that grocery prices in Chiang Mai registered as more expensive than Koh Samui, but clearly there’s not enough data for this comparison at this time so we will run more comparisons on our next visit to this city. Numbeo does have a full set of data to compare with Phuket, though there are some odd numbers in this comparison too. Since this Numbeo tool is crowd sourced it clearly has limitations.
What we spent
At the end of our trip to Chiang Mai Alison played her Money Crush game and found that we had stayed there for 21 nights for $40.75 per person per day. We definitely stayed within our budget on this trip.
The graphic below shows what we spent in US Dollars while staying in this location. This does not include costs for our fixed expenses, such as annual medical insurance. It also does not include regional travel costs. To reach Chiang Mai we flew from Siem Reap in Cambodia using AirAsia for $169.83 per person, including the costs for selecting seats and checking bags.
Our housing options as full-time travelers range from a hotel booked with points or dollars, an Airbnb, or a house sit. For Chiang Mai I found a fantastic Airbnb in the Mueang district.
Traveling full-time has taught us some weird lessons, including the fact that it’s hard to find an apartment with one comfortable chair let alone two. This particular apartment belongs to an expat who lives in Chiang Mai most of the year and travels back to his home country in Europe when his place is rented. This apartment had 2 comfy couches plus 2 comfy chairs, which is the mother-load of good furniture. Of all of the places we stayed in during our 4 months in SE Asia this one apartment had the most character and was definitely the most comfortable for us to live in. And with a 21 day housing cost of $618.80 that put us at $14.73 PPPD, which is way under our budget. That is exactly what we are looking for in this mad dash to have a good time plus stay within our budget plus find some places we actually like enough to return and stay for a month or 2 or 3. We would gladly return to this apartment again.
We shopped and ate at home most of the time. We found a fabulous grocery store in the shopping mall which was probably a more expensive store but it had everything we needed with a very wide variety of fresh produce and meat and seafood. We were thrilled to be in control of our meals. For a couple of our grocery store trips we had a fun lunch at the mall and then shopped and went home to cook dinner. On our first night in the city we took the recommendation of our host and walked over to the best sushi place in town. We actually splurged on eating out and on going out for drinks with friends in this location. We met friends out for drinks and dinner 4 times in 3 weeks. And with all of that our total food spending in this location was $612.18, which is $14.58 PPPD spent on groceries and restaurants combined.
Experiences – the good ones
1. Cooking Class
We love taking cooking classes on our travels and this was one of the best cooking classes we have ever taken. Our class was with Lanna Smile Thai Cooking, and there were 2 local women handling the class. We really enjoyed the experience and would recommend it to others. For $35 per person we got a half day cooking class, a unique cultural experience, some amazing new friends, tons of great conversation with local Thai people and fellow travelers, and a fabulous dinner we made ourselves. First our group went shopping at a local street market where we learned about the various spices, produce and other things at the market. During our class we made curries from scratch and cooked 5 different dishes. Of course the best part was sitting down together to eat them all!
2. Medical Tourism
We got required and recommended vaccinations in the US before we left on our full-time travels. Some of the vaccinations are in cycles that have to be spread out with a few months between shots, including Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B. Hep B requires 3 doses and Hep A requires 2 doses. We were due for the last doses of Hep A and Hep B when we arrived in Chiang Mai. We went to the CM Mediclinic a small, clean, and welcoming medical office. The front desk staff included a Thai woman and British expat man and everyone spoke perfect English. A nurse brought us back to the vaccination area for our shots. I asked to look at the boxes and bottles for our vaccinations for a little extra comfort and was reassured. And before we knew it we were all done. It was fast and as painless as vaccination shots can be.
Dental Cleaning + Crown
We each got standard dental cleanings at Kitcha Dental Clinic in Chiang Mai, for $35 each. The front desk staff greeted us very warmly when we arrived. The office seemed new, clean, comfortable, and very welcoming. The staff spoke enough English to check us in and work with us on filling out our forms. The exam room was very clean and very modern. All of the equipment looked brand new and very advanced. I was immediately impressed. My dentist was Dr Kitcha himself. I was surprised when I realized the dentist was doing the cleaning himself since back in the US hygienists have done my cleanings, saving the more intensive dental work like fillings and crowns for the dentist. I felt kinda special having such an experienced and top-rated dentist cleaning my teeth. Back in the US my cleanings were done by poking and scraping at my teeth and gums with sharp metal tools. But in Chiang Mai they used the ultrasonic tool for the majority of the work and I never got poked by a sharp metal tool in their office.
I was so impressed by that excellent cleaning experience I decided to also get a porcelain crown the following week. For the crown they had a bigger team in the room. There was the dentist Dr Kitcha, plus his main assistant, and then another person managing the nitrous and also helping with the different tools and the overall process. The porcelain crown plus nitrous oxide cost $663. It’s a little hard to say exactly what I saved compared to what I might have paid in Seattle for the crown, but we estimate I saved between $400 and $900 on that. I have never left a dental office so satisfied and happy before. We love saving money!!!
Check out our Chiang Mai medical tourism experience blog post for more info.
3. Temples (Wats)
We had read on blogs and travel sites that there are over 300 temples in and around Chiang Mai, and the Old City area is packed with them. During our trip we made no effort to hit the “top 10 temples” and we actually walked right past the famous Wat Chedi Luang because it has an admission fee. We love walking around neighborhoods to see local architecture. And we also love going from temple to temple to see how each one is interesting and unique. We never seem to get temple’d out. One of our favorite sayings in Thailand is “What Was is that?” So we wandered around the Old City a few times and visited the temples that happened to be right in front of us. The only thing we really looked for were Lanna style curves and points at the top of rooflines.
4. Movie Night
We also went out to the movies one night for $13.91 total. That got us 2 movie tickets and a bucket of dry styrofoam disguised as popcorn. The popcorn thing was my fault since I was looking for buttered popcorn and they didn’t have that. They had caramel corn or cheese corn or spicy sriracha corn, and in the moment those all seemed wrong to me. Obviously I should have gone for the caramel corn option. Oops! Anyway, we saw “Captain Marvel” which was the latest superhero blockbuster at the time. It was a lot like the experience we would have had if we still lived back in the US, except for the popcorn and one other thing. I was munching away on that terrible dry popcorn when the previews stopped and a video clip in honor of the King of Thailand started to play. Apparently a two minute clip in honor of the King is shown before all movies at theaters in Thailand. As soon as it started everyone in the theater stood up immediately and those with hats removed their hats. Based on the behavior of the people in front of me, I assume people take that situation seriously and stay focused on the video clip of the King being majestic. No distractions and no goofing around. I suppose it was a little bit like being at a baseball game in the US when they play the national anthem – but this was actually much more intense. Once the Thai anthem finished playing and the King’s video ended, we were able to enjoy “Captain Marvel” being marvelous.
Experiences – the bad ones
1. The Elephant Sanctuary
While we were in Thailand we kept hearing from other travelers that the highlight of their trip was visiting with elephants. Other travelers have written that it was truly magical and life changing for them to spend a day with those gentle giants, to be able to hug and kiss an elephant and gaze into their huge eyes. People seem to agree that it’s important to see elephants in Thailand, and most people also agree that you need to make sure you are seeing happy, healthy elephants just being themselves rather than elephants performing in circus like conditions. The fact is that there are some truly dreadful elephant tourism experiences available for travelers in Thailand, and there are also some elephant tourism organizations that are relatively ethical. So we visited what is said to be the single most ethical elephant park in all of Thailand. And we were pretty much horrified by our elephant experience.
Elephants are the national symbol of Thailand. But elephants are often treated the same as livestock even though they helped build the nation and the Thai culture. For centuries elephants have been used as tanks, tractors, bulldozers, taxis, clowns, pets, and slaves. Things are changing for elephants in the 21st century, but not fast enough.
People say that Thailand’s elephant problem isn’t about travelers since they’re usually unaware of the pain their rides cause and the terrible conditions elephants live in. I disagree. The responsibility is definitely on the tourism companies and other businesses that profit from elephant tourism practices, but it’s also on tourists who seek to be entertained by elephants. Tourists are responsible for creating the market that’s behind elephant tourism today. If travelers stopped visiting elephant parks and refused to ride elephants there would be no elephant tourism niche in Thailand’s economy.
According to World Animal Protection’s guidelines for ethical elephant camps, a truly ethical elephant sanctuary would not provide visitors with riding, shows, or washing. Visitors should always be kept a safe distance from the elephants so the elephants are not being managed or controlled. And elephants should never be bred in captivity. A truly ethical elephant sanctuary would focus completely on providing care for existing elephants without modifying elephant behavior in any way for the entertainment of visitors.
We spent $157.63 for the prescribed educational elephant experience. We visited Elephant Nature Park, around 37 miles from Chiang Mai. They say their mahout employees guide elephants around the park to enjoy peace and freedom through only verbal commands and use no physical force or emotional intimidation — not true. We saw elephants being punched, kicked, screamed at, chased, and hit with sticks. We were told to stand on a river bank and watch as elephants were chased into the water to bathe so tourists could laugh and take pictures.
Our mahout tour guide said their elephant population is approaching 100, and that they have around 80 rescued elephants in their 250-acre camp. We got up close and personal stories and visuals of the injuries their rescued elephants are living with and saw with our own eyes that many of their elephants have suffered tremendously. Our mahout tour guide said one of the two reasons their numbers are growing is that new elephants are being born in captivity in their park. When one of our tour member friends asked why they were breeding captive injured elephants the mahout answered that they don’t force them to breed, they just encourage and allow them to breed. Which was interesting since he also told us that the adult male elephants are so dangerous they have to be kept separate from the females and juveniles.
At Elephant Nature Park we saw elephants living with permanent damage to their spines, hips, legs, and feet. Elephants so injured they couldn’t walk or stand without help. And elephants so depressed they were unable to socialize and had to be fed since they weren’t eating on their own. We kept thinking that back in the US it would be humane for dogs and horses with these types of injuries and ongoing pain and suffering to be put down. And yet we were gawking at these elephants who were being held in captivity for the duration of a human lifespan for no purpose other than entertaining tourists.
Since tourists are interested in experiencing elephant sanctuaries, even ethical ones, new elephant camps are being created in Thailand and more elephants are being taken to existing camps every year. Just calling these places sanctuaries doesn’t mean elephants are being treated well, it often just means the rough treatment is better hidden from tourists. We decided while we were with the elephants never to participate in animal tourism again. From my perspective, there is no ethical way to use animals for entertainment purposes, so in the future we would prefer to make a donation and stay away.
2. Burning Season!
In our pre-arrival research about Chiang Mai I read about burning season and I thought I understood what that would be like for us. Our plan was to be in Chiang Mai from March 5-26, and I had read that Chiang Mai gets hazy in early March but occasional rain clears it up though the haze can continue off and on until June. I thought we’d be there early enough to not see the beginning of haze but not the worst of it. Whatever we were expecting, the reality was much worse.
During burning season air pollution can become very hazardous. Chiang Mai isn’t the only place that gets blanketed in smoke. The valley areas of the high mountain parts of SE Asia capture smoke every year during the dry season and continue collecting smoke until the wet season settles in enough to really clear the air. Burning season is caused by a combination of burning crop fields, normal forest fires, and forest fires started by people. It starts around early March and continues until May or June, whenever the fires are out and the rainy season sets in. Individual areas and neighborhoods all have unique experiences and amounts of pollution every year.
When we told the friends we had made during our first few weeks in Thailand about our plans they said we should cancel our trip to Chiang Mai because of burning season. We were told more than once, “You never go to Chiang Mai between February and June!” They also told us to start using the AirVisual app to check air pollution numbers. AirVisual uses an air quality rating scale that goes from 0 to 500 where high numbers indicate high levels of air pollution. Anything over 300 qualifies as hazardous conditions.
During our visit there was some haze for a few days and then the smoke got heavier and heavier until the word “haze” was completely inadequate. During one week the app registered a reading of 404 in our neighborhood and we thought we had seen the worst of it. But the following week the readings went up to 449. At that point we definitely wanted to leave because the air was terrible inside our apartment and every other place we went to hoping there was a business with an air conditioning system strong enough to handle the pollution. It was so bad that the airlines were cancelling flights due to limited visibility. Alison stuffed extra bed sheets in the sliding glass doors of the apartment to get extra protection from the outside air, we were wearing pollution masks indoors, and I had asthma every day for weeks. So I can say with absolute certainty that we will listen to the advice from our new friends in Thailand and give Burning Season a very wide berth in the future. We will avoid the area between end of February and beginning of June in the future. Lesson learned!
Even though it was Burning Season it was impossible for us to completely avoid taking walks, so we walked to dinner, to a street market, and to the university to stroll around. We also walked around to see temples and enjoy the Old City. We didn’t get a chance to spend the day walking freely the way we usually would and that was disappointing. But we still enjoyed what we did get to see and look forward to returning. Because the city was having seasonal air quality issues we took Grab cars everywhere. We spent $70.54 ($1.68 PPPD) on Grab cars during our 3 weeks in Chiang Mai.
Where We Spent Our Time
Money Crush Score: Excellent, well under our budget.
Our Money Crush score does not factor in how much we liked a city, it’s focused on whether we made good financial choices and stuck to our budget. Our average daily spending goal for 2019 is $115 per day, that’s total dollars spent for the two of us.
Our actual daily spending in Chiang Mai averaged out to $81.50 per day for the two of us, or $40.75 per person per day. That’s about 71% of our average daily budget — a good Money Crush score.
Travel Score: We liked it, even though the air quality sucked, and we can’t wait to return.
Our overall travel score is essentially a rating for how happy we were in a city, which is 100% variable based on tons of factors. This does not factor in what we spent. It’s based mostly on whether we want to return for a longer stay in the future.
Chiang Mai is the only location in Thailand we planned to visit far in advance of arriving. We were happy in our Airbnb living like local expats, shopping at the market and cooking for ourselves. We enjoyed doing normal stuff like going to the movies, going to the dentist to get our teeth cleaned, and going to a travel clinic for vaccinations. We loved our Thai cooking class. And we were thrilled to meet some amazing fellow travelers that have become close friends since then. We know a lot more about Chiang Mai and Thailand now and we are really looking forward to returning for another long stay in the future, just not during Burning Season!
LGBTQ Score: Relatively less friendly for Queers compared to other places in Thailand, but improving…
Chiang Mai’s LGBTQ community faces discrimination and violence on a very regular basis. Even so, progress is happening and it appears that things are improving. Not long before we arrived in Chiang Mai this year the city celebrated only its 3rd Pride festival. Or actually it was really only their 2nd Pride festival since the previous one was a complete disaster. The city’s 1st Pride event in 2008 was a good start for this conservative city. But their 2nd pride event in 2009 ended almost immediately after it started due to organized harassment and violence from a substantial showing of anti-LGBTQ activists. The amount of discrimination imposed on Chiang Mai’s queer community on that day in 2009 by hundreds of hateful protesters was so hostile that it took 10 years for LGBTQ people to attempt another Pride event in their city.
Today’s Chiang Mai community is relatively tolerant of homosexuality in tourists but less tolerant of their own LGBTQ citizens. There is definitely still a sizable portion of Chiang Mai’s population that continues to believe homosexuality is an insult to Chiang Mai’s culture. We had a bizarre conversation with the two women running our cooking class on this subject. The main instructor asked us if we were really married, and then said they “don’t often see homosexual people in Chiang Mai other than the Lady Boys who are actually men acting like women.” She followed this statement with a giggle.
So just this year in February 2019 Chiang Mai took a huge step forward by hosting its 1st Pride Parade in 10 years. It’s not an understatement to say that this city is still very conservative and not quite used to the idea that LGBTQ people should be accepted as members of their own community, or heaven forbid members of their own families. It sounds like the 2019 Pride event in Chiang Mai was a success, and a huge relief and source of celebration for the local LGBTQ community. We hope Chiang Mai continues to make leaps and bounds forward in the coming years!
Other Stuff We Think is Interesting
How big is this city?
Chiang Mai was founded in 1296 as the capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom, though it is not Thailand’s capital today. It’s a very diverse city with modern buildings, a thriving university, fabulous restaurants, beautiful parks, impressive museums, and historic temples. Even though we were there for 3 weeks, we made no effort to see it all in one trip. Chiang Mai is not a very big city in relative terms though, with a population of around 200,000 people in Chiang Mai and a metropolitan sprawl that extends to around 1 million people. For comparison purposes you can compare that to around 5 million people in Bangkok.
Chiang Mai was appealing to us because we wanted to visit a place in SE Asia that was a bit higher in altitude and set in a more Northern latitude where we were hoping to find more comfortable weather. Chiang Mai is around 1,020 feet in elevation and has a “cool season” that lasts from December to February. Turns out the weather wasn’t really any more comfortable than what we experienced at sea level. When we were in Phuket a few weeks before we got to Chiang Mai the temperature was around 95°F during the day with around 75% humidity. During our 3 week stay in Chiang Mai the temperature was around 98°F during the day with humidity around 65-70%. Our next trip would likely be between November and February when it’s a tiny bit cooler.
Thailand’s monarchy was founded in 1238, though the current dynasty dates to 1782. The early Chakri kings held to beliefs of supreme authority for the throne for centuries. Some say change began in this monarchy in 1868 a young king, Rama V, ascended the throne with new ideas. Rama V had a British governess who first opened his mind to western traditions. He created numerous reformations during his long reign with changes like the creation of a privy council and putting an end to slavery. His sons, Rama VI and Rama VII continued with modernizing the monarchy after him.
In 1932 Rama VII agreed to the creation of Siam’s first constitution, which ended absolute rule in what is now Thailand. That’s the point where many observers believe Thailand’s progress ended and the government of Thailand took a real turn agains modernizing and began removing freedoms from Thai people which is a trend that has continued all the way up until today. After Rama VII’s abdication Thailand had a puppet king and then a fascist king, and then joined with the Axis powers in WWII. After the death (or murder) of Rama VIII, the next king (Rama IX) ascended the throne in 1946. Rama IX was the world’s longest reigning monarch at the time of his death in 2016, and his last great act was to legitimize the 2014 coup that put the current military dictatorship in control of Thailand. His son, Rama X, finally had his coronation a couple weeks after we left Thailand in May of 2019.
The Current Military Dictatorship
According to Human Rights Watch… “In 2018, at least 130 pro-democracy activists in Bangkok and other provinces faced illegal assembly charges—and in some cases, sedition—for peacefully demanding the junta’s promised election to be held without further delay and that all restrictions on fundamental freedoms be immediately lifted.”
Thailand has banned all forms of public assembly and free speech, the media is censored, and activists and journalists can legally be arrested and disappeared. Thailand’s entire political system is currently under the control of the military junta. Thailand is known as the “Land of Smiles,” which is political marketing at it’s finest. Millions of tourists visit Thailand every year without awareness that the country is a military dictatorship with no democracy and no free speech. Knowing that definitely impacts our ability to enjoy and appreciate visiting Thailand.
One of the more critical political characters in Thailand today is Prayut Chan-o-cha, a former Commander in Chief of the Royal Thai Army. He was heavily involved in the political crisis that began in 2013. In May 2014, Prayut staged a military coup against the government and then assumed control of the country as head of the National Council for Peace and Order. He then issued an interim constitution granting himself sweeping powers along with amnesty for staging the coup. In 2014 he created a military-dominated national legislature when then appointed him Prime Minister. As of August 2019, thanks to the fake election staged in Thailand this year, Prayut now serves as the elected Prime Minister of Thailand, Thailand’s Defense Minister, and head of the Royal Thai Police. He also assumed the duties of Deputy Prime Minister as head of the government’s economic team and oversees the Justice Ministry’s Department of Special Investigation.
The military junta that seized power in 2014 has cracked down hard on citizens and foreigners who criticize the monarchy or current government. The numbers of people who have been arrested and jailed has increased year after year since 2014. In 2015, Thailand spent $540 million on a marketing campaign they called “Worship, protect and uphold the monarchy.” Attempts to praise and protect the reputation of the king go hand in hand with blocking any criticism of the military junta that rules Thailand. The government’s 2016 budget included $514 million for their marketing and propaganda campaign “upholding, protecting and preserving the monarchy.”
Thailand’s 2019 Election
The 2019 Thai general election was held on March 24 while we were still in Chiang Mai. It was the first election in Thailand since the 2014 coup that installed the military junta. The elections selected a new House of Representatives, since the previous House was dissolved by the military coup.
One of the first things we noticed relating to the election was a 24 hour alcohol ban during pre-voting from March 16 to 17, and again the weekend of the general election on March 24. We talked to people in restaurants and stores about their concerns over increased scrutiny by police relating to the alcohol bans, as well as concerns that there might be serious protests and political action with backlash by the police and military during the election period. We were very glad to be in Chiang Mai instead of Bangkok while all of that was going on since things remained relatively quiet in Chiang Mai.
Thailand’s 2019 election was determined to be unfair by Human Rights Watch and other organizations. Thailand’s Election Commission, which was appointed by the junta showed intense bias towards the ruling junta and incompetency in its democratic responsibilities. Human Rights Watch cited rampant political repression across the country with media censorship, election control by the military-appointed Senate, and other factors preventing a free and fair election. Human Rights Watch has also determined that the junta has became increasingly intolerant of any criticism and more violent since 2014, with the worst violence occurring in 2019. Thailand’s 2019 elections had one purpose, to keep the junta in power. Unfortunately, reactions from America and the European Union mostly ignored Thailand’s fake democracy.
One of the elements of the so-called election of 2019 that we were most fascinated by was the attempt of the king’s elder sister to restore democracy in Thailand. Princess Ubolratana Rajakanya Sirivadhana Barnavadi was quite vocal, standing up to the monarchy and the military until her party was dissolved by the government. Since speaking against the king and government is illegal in Thailand, it was remarkable to witness her courage.
Since the election this year, the junta has only increased open violence to intimidate and harass its critics. Human Rights Watch has been cataloging violent attacks on pro-democracy critics of the junta throughout this year.
When we were in Thailand my interest was mostly on understanding the current political situation, government and monarchy. I would have been interested in reading a good novel based in Thailand as well, but I had trouble finding one that wasn’t focused on the sex trade and a disappearance/murder coverup by the government. Since Thailand does not recognize free speech and there are more than the typical number of banned books in Thailand, that seemed like a great place to start in looking for books to read. The two books I picked up first were:
The King Never Smiles, by Paul Handley. This book was banned in Thailand as soon as it was released. It’s a biographical story of the beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej, and includes some amazing detail about the of Thailand’s monarchy and government. During our stay in Thailand we saw his portrait everywhere. He was beloved by the people, as a deeply religious embodiment of the Buddha. King Bhumibol Adulyadej was born in the US and at the time of his death in October 2016 he was the world’s longest serving monarch. This book is considered illegal defamation in Thailand. He went from being an apolitical egalitarian king to being an autocrat who. Handed the full authority of a military dictatorship to the current military junta.
A Kingdom in Crisis: Thailand’s Struggle for Democracy in the Twenty-First Century, by Andrew MacGregor Marshall. This book dives deep into Thailand’s political issues and the complex role the monarchy has in politics and government related drama. Since there is no freedom of speech in Thailand, this author has been banned from Thailand because this book exposes the country’s corruption, human rights violations, and other issues.