Chiang Mai is ranked the #1 spot for digital nomads. I think what gives Chiang Mai this top spot is a combination of fast internet, affordability, and community. Scroll down to the bottom for specific picks.
Why Chiang Mai?
Fast wireless, the lifeblood for a digital nomad, is what puts a destination on the map for digital nomad. The internet in Chiang Mai is fast but not flawless. There are a couple of digital nomad hubs with extremely reliable internet, but beyond that wireless can be hit or miss. Most coffee shops give you two hours of internet access with a purchase of 50 Bahts or more. However, after purchasing a drink and settling in, you might find that the internet is slow or not working. This happened to me in Librarista and Kaweh cafe.
The alternative is to subscribe to a co-working space like PunSpace or find “laptop-friendly” Airbnb.
A different side of Thailand-A lot of people conflate Bangkok and Thailand. Even having visited Thailand every 2-4 years since I was a baby, I made the same mistake since most of my family live in Bangkok. Chiang Mai is still busy and has its share of traffic problems, but Chiang Mai feels more open and less intense than Bangkok.
Compactness-The perimeter of the moat surrounding the old city is about 6 km and Nimman is only about 3 km from the center of the walled city. There are great restaurants further away from the city center, but you can find everything you need in a relatively small area.
Affordability-Rent and food, two of major monthly expenses are extremely cheap. You can get a nice condo in the Nimman neighborhood starting around $300 a month. If you’re staying long-term, it’s probably best to go through a rental agency.
Culture-Based on my limited experiences, the interaction between expats, travelers, and locals in Chiang Mai felt healthier and more mutually beneficial than in Bangkok. Locals and expats/travelers still largely lived in two different worlds, but it seems like there were more avenues for locals interested in other cultures and expats who have a sincere interest in Thai culture to interact. The smaller size of Chiang Mai might be biggest factor fostering this interaction.
Food-You can choose from street food, upscale Thai eateries like those along Niman, or Western food when you are craving a taste of home. Northern Thai food has a distinct flavor and style than the rest of Thailand, and you can have many good meals getting to know these differences. I have a lot more to say about this topic below. Just rest assured that you’ll be able to have great, affordable food for every meal.
A Couple of Drawbacks
No place is perfect. Here’s a couple of annoyances and things to avoid:
Crossing the road is very difficult Traffic in Chiang Mai is not Bangkok-bad, but there are only a few main roads so there’s a lot of cars at almost all hours. Unfortunately, these roads are also connect places pedestrian want to go.
Haze-I didn’t experience this myself, but one thing that makes living in Chiang Mai year-round is the season where the haze sets in.
Finding a Place to Stay
If you’re in Chiang Mai for a few weeks, Airbnb is a good way to find a condo. However, be warned that in Chiang Mai, my friends and I seem to have to a different experience with Airbnb than in other destinations. I would not commit to a place for more than a few days until you’re sure it fits your need.
In Chiang Mai, many of the listings do not spell out the downsides of a place. I am not sure if this is a fluke or part of the “saving face” that is a big part of Thai culture. In Latin America and the US, disadvantages such as being far from the city center or being too close to the airport are emphasized by Airbnb hosts to avoid unmet expectations. But in Chiang Mai, I stayed in four places, and it wasn’t until the last place that I found the combination of location, wireless, and quiet-the things I needed to be productive in one place. I think most of the condos on Huay Kaew or the Nimman area would have worked, but Airbnb filters were not as effective as in other places.
Where to eat
Street food is little less ubiquitous than in Bangkok where you can’t walk more than a couple blocks without seeing a street vendor. There’s still plenty of options but they tend to appear in clusters. The Saturday and Sunday Night Markets and the Night Bazaar are where tourists normally start. The prices tend to be higher at these markets, but they are still affordable. There’s a lot of vendors with a wide selection in front of Maya Mall. There’s also usually one or two vendors in front of 7-Elevens. The street food speciality is sausage, a Northern Thai speciality.
There are many open-aired “shacks” that offer seating areas and fans. Meals start at around 35 Bahts. Even the shacks in local neighborhoods will usually have an English menu. If not, there will be photos on the wall of the dishes. The shacks in the tourist areas (near Thapae gate) will have less authentic taste and cost a about double.
There are many upscale Thai eateries popping up, especially in the Nimman neighborhood. Some of these eateries will focus on one Thai dish such as Som Tum or Larb and offer many different versions of this dish. You can order other dishes to complement your meal, but the name of the restaurant and the menu will make it clear that you should order at least one version of the signature dish. Examples of this trend is LabKai, Cherng Doi Roast Chicken, and Somtum Yokkrok.
If you’re craving Western food, Chiang Mai also has you covered, but you’ll pay a premium (close to what you would pay back home) and what you get might not exactly be like what you’d get at home. I feel that a lot of TripAdvisor reviewers really miss Western food and haven’t had a pizza/burger/etc in years, making their reviews a bit overzealous.
I like where Chiang Mai is going and can see other cities in SE Asia like Luang Prabang going in the same direction.
Best coffee shop-Ristr8to Lab Cafe (Nimman Road Soi 3). Recommended by my Airbnb host. This place has reliable wifi and the best coffee I had in my month in Chiang Mai.
Best place to work for a few hours- C.A.M.P (5th floor MAYA mall). At C.A.M.P, you get a voucher for wifi for two hours for every purchase of 80 Bahts or more. There’s a lot of people working at all hours, giving this place an energetic feel. What I love about this place, is that even though there’s a ton of people, you can always find seating because there are so many different areas to sit. You can sit in the “Tree house,” in the bar area near the cafe selling drinks, on the patio outside, or one of the seats on the diamond-shaped desks.
Best place to work for a week or more-There are two PunSpace co-working space, one near Thapae Gate and another in the Nimman area. I like the option of being able to work at either, but I prefer the Nimman one because the food options nearby are more authentic and tastier (backpacker options vs cafes and bistros serving Thai food).
Best place to sample Northern Thai food-My favorite restaurant in the Nimman area was LabKai Nimman. You can enjoy Northern Thai specialties with wine in a nice, modern atmosphere for a relatively low price (200 Bahts for a dish).
Best place to sample Northern Thai food with a crowd-Tong Tem Toh. This is the best place to sample Northern Thai food with friends. There is a wait of 20-40 minutes just about every hour the restaurant is open. Specialities include the Thai sausage, the pork that you can see being grilled in front of the restaurant, and the curries.
Best Cooking class-I would recommend the Asia Scenic cooking class. Most of the Thai cooking classes have similar format. There’s an option to go on a market tour, and for the class itself you pick one dish from four to five in each category (appetizer, stir-fry, curry which includes making the paste from scratch, dessert). I was surprised at how many courses ignored Northern Thai dishes. I chose Asia Scenic in particular because I wanted to learn to make Khao Soi and I liked the farm option of leaving the city to cook in their facility where they grow organic vegetables. The class was well-organized and came with a cookbook for all of the dishes as souvenir.
Best place area to stay-I thought that staying in one of the many condos on Huay Kaew road was the most convenient location for being close to the Old City and the Nimman area. It’s also easy to direct a taxi or Tuk Tuk to your place. You’re close to restaurant, bars, co-work spaces, convenience stores, and the Maya Mall.