Living in Chiang Mai: 4 Areas for Long-Term Expats and Travelers to Settle In
Settling down in a foreign city can be a nerve-wracking endeavor. You’re not only far away from home, often with no friends to speak of, but you don’t know what fair rental prices are. Nor get around the city to find the apartments in the first place—let alone find the safest, most livable neighborhoods.
I can’t walk that journey for you, but I can at least point you in the right direction. When looking for a place to settle down in Thailand’s cultural center, foreigners usually want a handful of the similar things.
And so there are four areas I recommend you focus your attentions.
1. Chiang Mai Center
The first and most obvious is Chiang Mai Center, where all the tourist venues are located.
Now, this wouldn’t’ be the first choice for me, but some travelers thrive on the non-stop party and constant influx of travelers. You will make friends and make them fast, and rather than going through the occasional alienation of living among a totally foreign culture, you’ll likely feel like you belong with the people you meet almost immediately.
Not to mention that when living in a place like the center of Chiang Mai, you’re never going to have to go far to find merchants that understand your “farang” ways and speak decent English—which eliminates a lot of the headache of living completely embedded in Thai culture, which is, of course, never too far away when you want it.
To add to this, Chiang Mai Center is full of great bars and restaurants to suit any foreigner’s taste (no matter how more or less distasteful those tastes are). You’ve got a quick walk to the Night Market. Tuk tuks can shoot you over to either mall quickly, and there are even a couple gyms in the area.
Just realize you are going to spend more on just about anything when you live in the Center—not just apartments but food and transportation as well. This is true in any downtown-type area but even truer when you live in a place full of people trying to trick naïve foreigners all the time.
Learning some Thai will go a long ways to deter people from cheating you.
2. Near Airport Plaza
Around the area where the freeways connect and Airport Plaza Mall rises to the sky you’ll find plenty of fine places to live as well. While a bit off the general tourist track, many condos in the area cater to expats and delicious, reasonably-priced restaurants target the middle-class Thai crowd, providing great venues to eat and listen to music.
Airport Plaza Mall offers extreme convenience and a nice escape from the dirty, rugged streets of Thailand, which does wear on your nerves when you experience it every day. They’ve got the absolute best food plaza I’ve encountered in all of Thailand, the best movie theater in town, and great shops for buying nice clothes (though at higher prices).
Around the holidays, Airport Plaza always throws big parties, with music and beer stalls for days at a time. And to top it all off, California Fitness is right upstairs. The area is also well-positioned to shoot out of town and do some roaming in the countryside via motorbike as well.
3. Downtown Nimanheimen
Nimanheimen area is my top pick but probably also the most expensive. Directly adjacent to Chiang Mai University, the area boasts the widest array of nightlife in town—if you like middle class Thai nightlife rather than foreigner nightlife, that is.
You’ll find live music everywhere, the best fine dining establishments in town, quiet coffee shops with wireless internet, and chic wine bars with extensive international lists. Quick motorbike rides can be had out past Mae Rim or up the mountain to Doi Suthep, and CMU and the 700 year Stadium both boast large pools for getting a good swim.
The mood here is relaxed, yet alive, and while it’s not an area packed to the gills with travelers, many of the educated residents speak English quite well. I’d say the only real drawback is being so far away from Airport Plaza Mall, as the other one standing on Huay Kaew Road is not all that great.
And while I did say Niman was expensive, go just a few blocks away from the downtown area and you can find great rates yet still be within walking distance. Look near the university, on either side, for some of the cheapest markets, housing, and eats in town.
4. Payap University Area
If you really want to get out of the way but still maintain access to all the big city amenities, find a nice condo in the Payap University area. For being so urbanized, the area is dead quiet much of the time, and aside from a few expats shopping at Big C with their families or strolling around the only German brewery in town, you won’t see many Westerners.
Good places to eat seem scarce at first and the same is true for nightclubs, but once familiar you will see there are university dives and fancier places scattered around. There are plenty of the typical 10 baht an hour internet shops you find in Thai university areas—these places also have the best equipment to keep the gamers happy.
There’s no shopping mall near Payap, but they do have a Big C with a huge food court, live music, beer tables, fast food restaurants, and the like.
Realize that the Payap area can get boring and frustrating if you don’t have a motorbike—there are not many tuk tuks in this area and things are more spread out. You’ll also need to head into town to get your fix of farang food and culture from time to time, no matter how hard core you are.
So a motorbike is a must.
Those are the areas in Chiang Mai that will most likely appeal to the foreigner, but don’t be afraid to get out there and find some for yourself. What I usually do is hop on a motorbike and tour around the backstreets of the areas I want to live and find something worth finding.
There’s nothing like stumbling across a cool little nook or cranny you didn’t know what was there and finding it bustling full of life and all the amenities you need.