Bangkok Phil

A dream lifestyle in Thailand

Does Chiang Mai offer the perfect place to live and work? Well, live anyway

Last week, I spent a very enjoyable four-day break in Chiang Mai, Thailand's fast-developing second city. It gave me the opportunity to catch up with a very close friend who has lived up there for several years. And let's face it - it's always a pleasure to get out of Bangkok for a few days.

This was probably my fifth or sixth visit to The Rose of the North. My only regret is that I don't get up there more often. And with competition rife among the low-cost airlines, you can now do the return flight for as little as 3,000 baht from Bangkok. Now that's what I call a travel bargain.

I'll put my hands up and admit I've been somewhat unkind to Chiang Mai in past blogs. On past visits, I've usually had the job of playing tour guide to my ageing parents and a couple of their friends. It's never easy to move a group of elderly folk around a sizeable Asian city without having every tout and unofficial tour operator descending on you from miles around. And Chiang Mai certainly has its share of locals all wanting to pile you into whatever vehicle they have and take you all on a tour of the sights. In the area around the Thae Pae gate, these guys hang around on literally every street corner. Run out of shampoo, and a simple walk from your hotel to the nearby convenience store becomes an exercise in running the gauntlet. You avoid eye contact, you shake your head and you just keep on walking.

I realize now that this has always been my problem with Chiang Mai and what's made me develop a rather negative attitude towards the place. I've simply spent far too much time hanging around the tacky tourist area near the old moat. My pal Andy summed it up perfectly
"I never venture into that part of town. There's no need to. That area of Chiang Mai to me is what lower Sukhumwit in Bangkok is to you. You only go when you have absolutely no other choice"

He was right. Every other business in that central area seems to offer foot massages, hill-tribe treks, tailor-made tours or quirky ethnic clothing. Some places even offer a combination of all things under one roof. Chiang Mai can be tremendously dispiriting if all you fancy is to be left alone for a quiet afternoon stroll and have zero interest in being taken to elephant training camps, tropical aviaries or exotic monkey shows.

The restaurants in the central moat area - and oh boy, is there is an abundance of great places to eat - do a very commendable job of fusing an authentic Thai food menu with western favorites such as a full English breakfast and sausage and mash, but where there are finicky, budget-conscious tourists, there are always weary waitresses. I ate at several restaurants in the tourist ghetto and while I wouldn't describe the service in any of them as ‘unfriendly' I wasn't exactly rushing back to the hotel to log on to Trip Advisor to tell the world about them either.

But let's leave the tourists to their baggy linen pants and their Ping River rafting experiences and move into the Chiang Mai suburbs because it's in the Chiang Mai suburbs that ‘an idyllic lifestyle' begins to take on a whole new meaning.

My pal Andy has spent five years looking for the perfect Chiang Mai apartment, and he's moved digs several times in the process. When he invited me over for a gander at his new condo, overlooking the Doi Suthep mountain, I got a feeling he wouldn't be going anywhere soon. Forget the good-sized bedroom, the spacious, comfortable lounge and the fitted kitchen, all in a well-appointed complex with its own gym and swimming pool - it's that view from the window that would sell the place for even the most jaded real estate agent. I stood in the kitchen and looked out at the mountain tops hidden by mist and angry grey clouds and said "how could you ever tire of that view?"

Andy's a funny bugger at times though. It's almost as if he doesn't appreciate what he has. I know familiarity breeds contempt and all that but when Andy said that life even in the midst of nature's glorious bounty can still be routine and sometimes lonely, I had to remind him that there were probably ten million people in the UK who would gladly change places with him in a heartbeat.

Over the four days in Chiang Mai I'm not ashamed to say I became very envious of Andy and his lifestyle. Whether it was zipping around on his motorcycle or navigating the sois and sub-sois on his trusty mountain bike, he always had something to do, somewhere to go or someone to see. Out in his own little Chiang Mai suburb, far from the maddening crowds, Andy knew every decent restaurant and every special lunch menu. We sipped ice cold lattes in one of Chiang Mai's numerous modern coffee shops and to get the heart pumping, we ambled half-way up Doi Suthep in the midday sun, as only mad dogs and Englishmen do - much to the amusement of the Thais as they drove past in their hired taxis. What a perfect life you could lead in Chiang Mai.

I delved deeper into Andy's exercise and health regime and found out that walking up Doi Suthep was something of a daily ritual. Sometimes he makes the journey alone and other times a newly-made friend will accompany him on the steep ascent. After a couple of hours of vigorous power-walking and a quick check of the stopwatch, Andy will take lunch at the local temple and a meal consisting of brown rice and something else disgustingly healthy, all washed down with bottled water and fruit juice. Listening to him go on about how he'd embraced a lifestyle far removed from the one he led in Bangkok, made me feel more and more out of condition.

"You need to take care of your health Phil and start moving around a bit my lad. Too many hours spent sitting at that computer can't be good for you"

Andy was right again. Damn those reformed couch potatoes!

Since I've returned to Bangkok, I've spent considerable time surfing Chiang Mai property websites. I get the notion that the grass could well be greener on the other side. It would be a few years before I made the move but it's certainly a goal to aim for. I'm now trying to get my wife to buy into the idea of ‘life up't north' and to her credit, she's keen on the idea without exactly gushing with enthusiasm. So far so good.

Many Bangkok expats still view Chiang Mai as a bit of a backwater. It can't be much fun having to travel all the way to Bangkok just to see a western movie or get a decent pizza. However, Chiang Mai has developed beyond recognition in the last decade. Out on the motorcycle with Andy opened my eyes to that aspect. Chiang Mai has all the bars, restaurants, coffee shops, supermarkets and shopping malls you could ever need. We even poked our nose into a couple of IT malls and they were both on a par with anything you would see in the Bangkok suburbs. So no worries about getting a broken computer repaired.

Best of all, Chiang Mai has a wonderful relaxed feel to it. It's a place that begs you to slow down and take things easier and you start to chill out the moment you land at the airport. Chiang Mai might well have an airport that boasts the word ‘international' in its name, but it's still distinctly ‘toy-town'. You pull your baggage off a lazy, slow-moving carousel, you saunter through a deserted arrivals area and there's not a single soul pulling at your sleeve and barking ‘taxi! taxi!" In fact once you've paid the very reasonable airport taxi fee at the official kiosk, it's quite a job to hunt down the actual taxi drivers. Eventually you find them - sitting under a shady tree playing checkers or enjoying a chat and a smoke. I had a lady drive me into town and she wouldn't hear of me struggling to get my bag out of the trunk once we'd arrived at the hotel. What a perfect start to any four-day break.

If only teaching salaries in Chiang Mai matched those on offer in the capital and there was an abundance of teaching work available. Chiang Mai would be the ultimate paradise in which to live and work.




Hi Phil,

Thank you for a very informative article on your travels around Chiang Mai. It’s phenomenal what can be found in terms of interesting places when one ventures away from the tourist conclaves.

I live in a suburb called Chalong, 20 minutes south of Phuket town. It has its own pulse, and has a few good western style shops in close proximately.

However, I have to say that I also once lived in the centre of Phuket Town, and still today it has a special place in my heart. As you said, if one is prepared to venture into the unknown of these towns and cities, there awaits places that one would never have dreamed existed. I suppose this is true to all cities of the world. Venture out, because that’s what makes us.

By Dave, Phuket (16th September 2010)

Hi Phil.

Yes it was nice to catch up again after so long. I noticed you hadn't aged a day these past few years whereas I could have probably passed for your bleeding Father, and we're roughly the same age!

It's so true what you say about CM and the joy of exploring outside the tourist box. Surprisingly though, most don't venture too far away from the guide books and suggested activities found pinned to poster boards situated in reception areas of hotels and guest houses!

Your average visitor hangs out around the heavily polluted Thapae area or just inside the old city. They mostly do a jungle trek (or 2), and visit monkey schools, elephants farms, and snakes shows, as these poor creatures unhappily entertain their audience with some laborious tricks that their masters have taught them over time.

I mean, c'mon folks! Who really wants to see a Macaque monkey pushing an empty pram or riding a frigging mini tricycle round in circles dressed in a Yorkshire flat cap and a pair of Larry King braces!!! I wouldn’t be surprised to see the poor little apes trained in topless pole dancing when the old performances start to get a bit stale!

Joe Average tourist might even take a day trip to the zoo after being crammed into the rear of a pokey minibus for 3 consecutive day tours. There comes a time when the ole feet finally beckon some quality time on firm ground! 3,000 temples, and a couple of Northern tattoos later, and the tree-huggers head off on their merry way in search of a little extra spiritual experience in the purity of Pattaya City ;-)

Chiang Mai is no different to any other location in the world in that many of the best places to visit are those where very few tourists ever venture.

I remember turning up at Cairo one night around 02:30 AM. Hadn't got a clue where I was going and had absolutely no idea where to stay. Yet after trudging the dark and dangerous streets for a couple of hours with 30 Kg of crap on my back and an acoustic guitar in hand, I eventually found an idyllic old stone built hotel in some dimly lit back street. The area was almost in ruins from a previous earthquake, though the damaged buildings took nothing away from this exciting and enchanting, off-the-beaten-track, part of Egypt's capital.

When venturing around Old Cairo and Islamic Cairo (which resembled towns stuck in the first century BC), I hardly saw another foreign face, and certainly no dreadlocks and lonely Planet's anywhere in sight! But then again, I've never been on a package tour holiday in my life. Having a photo album with snapshots of say 'Tony and Joan' from a 10 day trip to somewhere pleasant in 1983 just isn’t, nor will it ever be, my cup of tea!

With regards to CM, there is so much more to this old town and ancient province, it's quite sad that folks venture all the way up here only to take a few snapshots of old temples, a trip up the Doi Suthep, and indulge in a bowl of Khao Soi (Chiang Mai noodle soup), as recommended by the tour operators and friendly locals. A few other popular attractions are mini classes in Thai Massage or Thai Cooking courses.

It's a shame the monsoons were so frequent and persistent Phil, otherwise I could have taken you out a bit further afield and explored some real hidden treasures amid the jungle covered mountains.

Heck. When I walk through the rainforests and navigate my way through trees, rocks and waterfalls at first light, I don't usually see another living soul until I get back to the road. It is then that I spot the cattle tourists sitting cheek to cheek in the back of a smoky old songthaew as they head off for a winding trek to the top of a mountain that could be strolled on foot and enjoyed in a little over 2 hours!

If tourists only want touristy things, then that's just fine and dandy, but if you want to take a little something extra home from your trip up north, then you might want to do a bit more research ahead of time. A lame search for a centrally located hotel or guest house that has cable TV and a wireless internet facility, will give you an experience fitting to its services, which will be same, same everybody else!

Btw, does anyone know where I can get a banana pancake somewhere near the Night Bazaar ;-)


By Aitch, Chiang Mai (2nd September 2010)

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