Bangkok vs Chiang Mai Compared by an Expat
I’ve lived in both as a digital nomad so I have a unique perspective on the pros and cons of each places. If I had to pick one or the other however I'm choosing Bangkok.
Chiang Mai vs Bangkok
Both these places are awesome and you should totally live in both to see which you like more. The reason people always say both are good is primarily because you’ll get bored of one place and want to live in the other.
If you live in Chiang Mai, you’ll eventually want more of a city life. If you’re in Bangkok all the time, you’ll start to long for nature, trees and beaches. But both are good, just in different ways. It’s like asking which is better, an Americano or cold brew. Depends on what you want.
We’re going to break down this comparison into a few different sections:
- Cost of living
- Expats community
- Overall Location
Cost of Living: Bangkok vs Chiang Mai
For this cost of living I'm writing from the perspective of a single, debt free man. I have no idea how much education costs in Thailand, no idea how much medical care is for those with chronic conditions and so forth.
I'm assuming you're reasonably healthy and intend to live in Thailand for a year or two before moving on.
Bangkok cost of living
Not surprising, Bangkok is much more expensive than Chiang Mai. Both are cheap, but in Bangkok you really need an income of 50,000 Thai Baht per month to live without worrying about money.
This 50,000 baht is enough to cover rent, food, transportation, random expenses that pop up and visa runs depending on your situation. Thailand like everywhere is getting a bit more expensive but depending on how you live, but 50k should be enough.
50k Baht is roughly 1,400 dollars. For me back in 2017 I was spending 11,000 Baht per month to rent my condo and about 1,500 Baht on electricity. My current place costs 17,000 Baht a month and 1,200 Baht for electricity. It's a much nicer place in every way and is well worth the price.
Then I find myself spending 600-1000 Baht per day on food and the BTS which is roughly 17-30 USD. I also have to pay for internet, my phone and other random things like tickets to concerts, nights out, dates, and miscellaneous expenses.
All in all I was spending about 43,000 Baht to live per month back in 2017. 13,000 for housing costs + 1,000 Baht a day or 30,000 Baht a month on food and going out. My current expense rate is about 60,000 Baht a month because I go out a lot more.
While you’ll see in forums and other websites talking about living in Bangkok for cheap, you’ll hate Bangkok if you try to do it cheaply as it’s not a place for those on a tight budget to live.
If that is you, hit up Kao San road, enjoy your week or so in Bangkok but then move on. Bangkok is a city and you’re going to want to spend money on nicer things and really enjoy yourself.
Sure, I could have gotten a cheaper place to live, but then I would have had to pay more for transportation to get to and from my place. Paying a bit more allowed me to live next to the BTS which made my life way easier.
Sure I could have spent less on food, but do I really want to eat every single meal from the food court at TESCO and 7/11 for snacks?
Sure I could have gone out less and not dated as much but then what is the point of living abroad if you’re just going to stay in your room all the time and not do anything?
It’s these expenses that make Bangkok more expensive because in Chiang Mai you simply don’t have as much temptation as you do in Bangkok with bars, world class clubs, girls and the higher overall costs for food and housing.
I honestly have no idea how any foreigner lives and works in Bangkok as a teacher on a salary of 35,000 Baht per month. You’re one problem away from disaster as you have no money to take care of any unexpected expense.
Chiang Mai cost of living
As for Chiang Mai you can live there on 35,000-40,000 Baht per month with no issue. It’s a large town, not a city like Bangkok. Your transportation costs will be less if you own or rent a motorbike and the rent is much cheaper.
In Chiang Mai you can find a comfortable, respectable place for 7,000 Baht. Food is also much cheaper as there are a plethora of Thai food places that sell great food for 40 Baht a plate.
My personal favorite for dinner was to get chicken and vegetables mixed together over rice with a fried egg on top. A simple good meal that fills me up.
With Chiang Mai, you simply have more options than Bangkok in terms of cost. You can eat Thai food and live in a place that has a lower rent. For Bangkok, you simply can’t because as you try to cut costs in one area, they increase in another.
Nightlife: Bangkok vs Chiang Mai
Yea, this is no comparison, Bangkok by a mile. Now don’t get me wrong, Chiang Mai has night life. It has it’s strip of bars and places to eat for evenings out, it also has it’s after hour places and what not.
But it’s the same 3 places over and over and that gets boring after being there for 6 months or more.
Not with Bangkok. The city is massive and there are so many different options. You can check out somewhere sleezy like Nana or you can checkout RCA where all the young people go to party (RCA has since closed permanently - thanks covid).
You have your standard bars with your bald aging English men, but you also have very expensive cocktail bars with some of the best drinks you ever had. My personal favorite is Backstage at Thonglor (went out of business due to Covid-19). They made this crazy good cold brew coffee cocktail.
I also went to beer feast with live punk rock music at the Brown Stone at On Nut. My friend and I were literally the only foreigners there as it was more of a locally known place.
With Bangkok there is always something to do and always somewhere to go.
Bangkok vs Chiang Mai: Expat Community
The expat community in Chiang Mai is made of three groups of people. The first group are the vegans. You’ll see them riding bikes in large groups together and making sure everyone knows they’re vegan and better than you because of it (I'm joking, kind of).
The next group are the aspiring and established digital nomads. You'll meet young guys wanting to build a business of some sort to become location independent. You'll also meet posers as well who are not really digital nomads but like the idea. Then you'll meet a small minority that are actually successful who are free.
Even if you’re not successful in the way you want to be yet, just being able to get around people who are running successful online stores, marketing agencies, bloggers selling digital products or freelance professionals; being able to ask questions of these individuals will help you tremendously in deciding what path is right for you to start building passive income online.
The last group are the old men of Chiang Mai. This group is cool too because you’ll meet men from all walks of life. Some men married a Thai woman and have lived in Thailand all their lives, others are retired and now just living it up in the north of Thailand.
As for Bangkok you basically have all walks of life. Your typically overweight expat looking to pay for a girl in nana, very successful entrepreneurs, English teachers and people just traveling and passing through and so forth.
Chiang Mai is a fun spot to settle in for a 6 months as a digital nomad as it is beautiful, peaceful and large enough to have a wide variety of activities. Just a bit too remote for my liking for long term living.
Bangkok is a fun international city that is quite affordable considering all that it has to offer. It does however take time to know where to go and what to do. Most hate Bangkok when they first arrive. I know I did, I also can say the same about Saigon. But if you stick it out and give it a chance you'll love it.
Weather: Bangkok vs Chiang Mai
“Winter” in Thailand is awesome. It’s usually in the mid 80’s (25-30 degree celsius) and hot but not too hot.
Bangkok is of course hotter than Chiang Mai but generally you’re going to be in a building. So your time outside is limited. It matters more at night because if you have any sense, you’ll dress up a bit for clubs and bars. When the hot season rolls around, it’s really too much all across Thailand.
The hot season is from March to May. I personally would not live in Thailand during this time unless you really like 110 degree (40 celsius+) weather everyday.
For Chiang Mai it’s slightly less hot and during winter and it actually gets cold enough at night to need a jacket. Chiang Mai is really beautiful over all. The only downside is that the city burns the rice fields every year around March during the hot season to prepare the fields for the up-coming rainy season.
So during this time the air pollution is bad and it’s incredibly hot. What is the pollution like in Bangkok? It’s bad too, but again it’s not like you’re outside all the time wandering around.
So Chiang Mai is nice, but it’s isolated as it is all the way in the north. It’s surrounded by country side, small towns and rice farms. It’s very beautiful but you need to understand that you’re sort of stuck there.
Image Credit: World Atlas
If that sounds fine and you look forward to renting a bike and heading out into nature then by all means visit Chiang Mai. You’ll have a wonderful time once you have a good group of friends to explore with.
Bangkok’s location is nice too because when you want to escape to say Hua Hin, Pattaya or Phuket you can do so fairly easily. Hua Hin and Pattaya can be reached from Bangkok by mini van and Phuket you can simply fly to from an airport in Bangkok.
Which one is best? Like I said earlier it depends on what you want. I loved exploring Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai by bike. Every month I would take off and visit somewhere new and just enjoy the freedom of being on the open road.
Bangkok was also great because when you got bored of Bangkok you could escape to somewhere totally different because you have access to an international airport. With Chiang Mai, when you want to fly abroad you'll have to fly down to Bangkok and then fly out from there.
In general this is a tie between the two. Both have world class hospitals to take of any issues you may have. Bangkok does have more specialized options than Chiang Mai. But for living there for a year as a healthy individual, both are fine.
The specalization is only applicable if something unlucky and unusual happens to you like it did to me when I got a horrible bacterial eye infection. Bangkok is the better choice for more serious health issues.
Thai Women: Bangkok vs Chiang Mai
Thai women are beautiful. Bangkok has more types of girls from different backgrounds. Girls from all over the country come to Bangkok for both school and work.
As for Chiang Mai, the selection is simply less due to a smaller population. But again, Thai women in general are very attractive. Chiang Mai girls tend to either be university students, girls who were born and raised there or Thai girls who are just visiting as Chiang Mai is a popular travel spot for Thai’s as well.
As for Thai men or gay culture I can't comment. If someone wants to chime in let me know and I'll add it in.
Conclusion - Bangkok vs Chiang Mai
Bangkok has everything expect nature. But it’s more expensive with a lot more temptation to go out all the time and spend a lot of money. If you’re instead looking for a chill place to set up shop and focus on work, Chiang Mai may be the better option.
It really comes down to this:
Do you want a fun city for cheap or do you want a fun, beautiful but isolated large town?
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