One reason we chose to spend 2 months living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was it’s reputation as a cheap place to live. We loved the idea of spending time in a cultural city and having access to historical sites, adventurous activities, and delicious food for pennies on the dollar.
While Chiang Mai wasn’t quite as cheap as we expected (nor as cheap as other place we’ve lived, like Vietnam), we were still impressed with how far our money stretched. We were impressed at how inexpensive housing is, street food, and certain activities, but felt like education and restaurants were more expensive than necessary.
Our family of 3 chose to rent a comfortable apartment near the middle of the city, though we could have saved money by renting a unit in the nearby towns. We also opted to rent a car for our stay instead of a motorbike, and enrolled our son in an international school instead of educating him at home. We found ways to save money by eating at street markets and refilling our water bottles as often as possible, but also splurged on opportunities to do fun things in the area. We didn’t do very much personal shopping, but did treat ourselves to special snacks, fresh fruit, or drinks when we were in the mood.
For anyone else interested in moving to a tropical paradise, here is the real cost of living in Chiang Mai, Thailand!
Our Chiang Mai, Thailand, monthly expenses
Rent for a furnished, 2 bedroom 2 bath apartment in the city: $625
Monthly tuition for international primary school (including 5 mandatory uniforms): $700
Monthly car rental: $510
Monthly SIM Card: $18.75
Here’s exactly what we spent each day to live in Chiang Mai, Thailand
8:00 a.m: Whit woke up at 4:00 a.m. and climbed into our bed. I spent the next hour tossing and turning before finally heading in to his vacant room. I’m still asleep by 8:00 a.m. when Ben takes him to school. Later we have breakfast at home as we rally enough to do some work.
12:00 a.m: Still feeling groggy, I head to 7-Eleven for a pick-me-up. Medium cup of iced chocolate milk and two candies for 38 baht ($1.18)
3:00 p.m: Whit forgot to take a snack to school, so we walk to Big C supermarket for an afternoon snack once he’s home from school. He chooses a hot dog and stick of fish balls fried on the spot and a small ice cream cone from Dairy Queen. 35 baht ($1.10)
6:00 p.m: I make dinner for Whit and I while Ben is out to a meeting. Once he’s home we get in the car to pick up our favorite desert, mango sticky rice, from the mall/ supermarket down the street. The drive takes 20 minutes due to awful stop lights and necessary u-turns, but our 2 plates are worth 60 bhat each. ($3.75)
Daily Spending: $6.03
8:00 a.m. Whit took my place in bed again this morning, but at least 6:00 is better than 4:00. Ben takes him to school then spends the morning mountain biking around Doi Suthep so I’m alone for the day to recover any sleep and work at my own pace.
12:00 p.m. I make a lunch at home to keep working while Ben and Whit are gone.
3:30 p.m. With Ben still out mountain biking, I take a Grab to pick Whit up from school. The round trip costs 35 baht ($1.10)
5:30 p.m. We need a couple of extra ingredients for dinner, so I walk to the grocery store to pick up chicken and hot peppers, 38 baht, and treat myself to a lemon plum bubble tea for my trouble, 30 bhat, ($2.12)
Daily Spending: $3.23
8:00 a.m. Whit heads to school and Ben makes himself breakfast at home. I’m feeling sick so I don’t eat.
12:00 p.m. Ben heads to a local coffee shop for a meeting and buys a local meal for 60 baht ($1.88)
3:30 p.m. Ben and Whit walk to 7-Eleven once they’re home to get a snack for Whit for 25 baht ($.78)
5:30 p.m. We unexpectedly babysit a friend’s three year old and decide to take the crew to a nearby mall for American-style pizza and chicken nuggets. The meal cost 567 baht, but everyone was happy with familiar food! ($17.72)
Daily Spending: $20.37
8:00 a.m. Whit goes to school, Ben and I get started working. We have a lunch date with some new business friends later, so it’s a mad dash to get as much done in the morning as possible. I’m trying to finish an article promised to another publication, and I’m too nervous to eat breakfast.
12:00 p.m. By lunch time I’m starving. Our new friends have been in Chiang Mai for much longer than us, so we asked them to choose the restaurant. They pick another American-style pizza restaurant in a different mall, of all things, but this time Ben and I opt for nachos and sandwiches. The meal is the most expensive we’ve had in Thailand, 786 baht (including automatic 10% gratuity), and we stay talking for almost 3 hours. $24.56
3:30 p.m. After hearing how much our new friends love Chiang Mai we feel bad for not exploring more, so we pick Whit up from school and head into town to sight see a new Buddhist wat. 100 baht entrance fee for two adults, kids are free. $3.13
6:30 p.m. After eating two meals of American food in malls I’m dying for some good, cheap, local food. It’s too late for me to make dinner at home, so we gorge ourselves on 150 bhat worth of tapas and drinks from our neighborhood night market. Ben is in need of a haircut and decides to get a cut and shave for 150 bhat at the night market, too, instead of going to the barber tomorrow. It’s fun to watch, at least! $9.38
Daily Spending: $37.06
8:00 a.m. Whit heads in to school with Ben while I work at home. When Ben comes home we walk around the neighborhood, picking up local fruit (10 bhat) and a chocolate milk (20 bhat) for breakfast. $.93
12:00 p.m. I haven’t cooked much lately, so I whip up some fried vegetables and rice for Ben and I from groceries we have on hand.
3:30 p.m. Ben picks Whit up from school and takes him for an afternoon snack at 7-Eleven for 35 bhat. $1.09
6:00 p.m. We meet friends for a movie at a local movie theater, and love the fine movie-going experience in Thailand! 200 bhat per ticket. ($18.75)
8:00 p.m. We have a group dinner at an Italian restaurant near the movie theater. The 1000 bhat meal is fine, but seems overpriced. This restaurant obviously caters to wealthy, homesick Westerners! ($31.25)
Daily Spending: $52.02
In looking back on what it cost us to live in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I’m pleased with how little it cost to enjoy ourselves. While it’s not the cheapest country in Southeast Asia, it’s much more affordable than other popular destinations. We were able to live comfortably for around 25-50% of our living costs in the United States, which is a huge improvement with our finances!
Overall I would definitely encourage expats to consider moving here. It’s beautiful, home to nice people, incredible food, cultural opportunities, but still offers plenty of familiar food and activity options, as well as a high percentage of citizens who speak passable English.
Thailand for the win!