The True Cost of Living in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai has gained quite a reputation, especially amongst the ‘digital nomad’ crowd, for being a fantastic location to live and work; with great infrastructure, fast Internet, good food, and friendly folk. Oh, and it’s dirt cheap. Indeed the rumours were true. But I wondered if my impression of the low cost of living might be biased by some exceptional bargains, and in fact, the true cost is marred by over consumption of the good life (ie. massages every day).

So I decided to audit my spending for an entire month (February) by recording every single purchase made and tallying up the numbers at the end.

In total, I spent 36,955฿/£756/$1,200 (or just 25,455฿/£521/$827 if I exclude rent). That’s an average of 878฿/£18/$29 a day. Removing some of the extremes, the more typical average would be around 505฿/£10/$16 a day.

I loosely categorised each transaction so that I could better understand where money was spent. Highlights include 590฿/£12/$19 in coffee shops, 1,400฿/£29/$45 on booze, 272฿/£6/$9 on feeding my sweet tooth, and 4,300฿/£88/$140 in massages/spa-related. The major cost areas were certainly rent and food.

In many ways the month proved to be a little out of the ordinary; it included a visa run (which entailed transport, hotel and visa costs), I had a colonic irrigation (an experience I won’t be forgetting anytime soon), a ~week long trip to Pai (transport, hotel), and I attended a meditation retreat. Then again, these costs reflect what you do when you relocate; you want to visit new places and try new experiences.

Whilst I did have a bunch of street food across the month, I think it’s useful to paint a picture of the high quality of living associated with the low cost. Firstly, our apartment was upmarket; it was newly refurbished and the building featured security and swimming pools. We actually paid a bit of a premium for the short-term contract and that the apartment featured large communal space and a kitchen (quite a rarity). We lived adjacent to a neighbourhood that’s positively hip – where the coffee bar and iPad-ownership per capita is as high as anywhere else I’ve seen in the world. I had great food from both street vendors and fancy restaurants. I ate out every single meal and didn’t cook once in the entire month. And I had massages when I wanted. Sure, the quality of many things isn’t as high as back home, but I continue to be dumbfounded at how high the quality of life can be for the price you pay.

It’s easy to forget the cost of getting myself here (ie. the flight and travel insurance). Whilst £465/return was quite a steal, it actually amounts to a significant part of your living costs if you appropriate it even over a 3-month stretch. Thailand’s double-entry tourist visa makes it straightforward to stay for as long as 6-months which would flatten out those big fixed costs even more.

Some friends had asked me what I would estimate to be an appropriate budget for a life in Chiang Mai. My previous gut feeling was that you could survive quite easily for £315/$500/month with some sound choices, that £472/$750/month would allow you to have a high standard of living where you’re doing what you want when you want, and £630/$1000/month would give you a near rock-star lifestyle. Based on the data I collected, it seems the hypothesis holds true. If you’re looking to escape home, bootstrap your latest venture or take an early retirement, Chiang Mai makes for a sound choice.

Recording all those transactions in itself proved to be a curious activity, filling up a spreadsheet made me relive a bunch of good memories. Give it a try sometime.

Hit me up in the comments if you have any questions.

 Tags: Random   Published: 24th March '12

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