The Cost of Living in Chiang Mai, Thailand

By Lloyd C | Updated June 18th, 2011

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I always thought the cost of living in India would be the lowest on Earth. But after spending only a few weeks there, I started to hear suggestions that Chiang Mai, Thailand was even cheaper. Could that possibly be?

Our cost of living posts has become somewhat of a series. So it only makes sense, now that I’m in Thailand, to update you on how Thailand relates to our previous destinations. I think you’ll be just as surprised as I was.

It’s not easy to compare the cost of living across countries. Either the expense items aren’t comparable, exchange rates have moved, or average prices are too difficult to measure. With that in mind, we try to be as objective as possible, even if our tastes have changed quite dramatically after a full 12 months of travel.

Let me first update our usual table.

The Cost of Living in Chiang Mai and Other Destinations

CityRent (/mth)Dinner (avg for 2)Beer (660ml)
Buenos Aires$570$31$2.55
Chiang Mai$398$25$2.53

As always, there are caveats. Clearly, Sydney is the most expensive city in Australia, just like Bangalore with respect to India. On the other hand, Montreal is one of the cheaper cities in Canada. Just like Chiang Mai with respect to Thailand. Nonetheless, the table shows our experiences and you can make whatever adjustments you think necessary.

There’s another caveat here concerning accommodation. In Cusco, we had a two bedroom apartment. While in Sydney and Montreal, we had small one-bedroom apartments; in BA we had a studio; in Bangalore, we only had one room of a large two bedroom apartment, and in Chiang Mai, I just have a small room (because Lauren is still in the Gobi Desert).

Also, these prices apply to long-term accommodation. If you’re looking for shorter term Chiang Mai hotels, or specifically hotels near Chiang Mai gate or hotels near the Night Bazaar, then we suggest you check those links.

The Lowest Cost of Living So Far

There’s no doubt about it, Chiang Mai has by far the lowest cost of living. You can easily find dinner for $10, but in the table, I’ve been a little conservative and added a drink, which will take you to $2.53. Even at a nicer restaurant, I can get pad thai and a beer, which also includes free WiFi, for $25. Yes, it’s really that cheap.

My $398 per month room has air conditioning, television, constant hot water, a weekly cleaning service, and 6Mbps WiFi, all-inclusive. I’m inside the old city and close to basically everything. Love it!

Interestingly, beer isn’t as cheap here as many other places. Including it in the table makes me look like an alcoholic, but I think the price of beer is an interesting cost of living measure. It seems to differ between countries with no regard for normal food and beverage prices. Likewise, I think the price of cigarettes is also an interesting social indicator, but since I don’t smoke, it’s a little too difficult to measure.

The Possibilities Are Endless

Some people have dreams that involve an extended focus on a particular project that won’t return a profit for many months or even years. This may include starting a business, writing a novel, painting pictures, working on theories, or even just catching your breath after years of monotonous work. For most people, dreams like these will never come to fruition because they seem financially out of reach.

Places like Cusco and Chiang Mai make this possible through lower costs of living and favorable foreign exchange rates. Conceivably, you could live in Chiang Mai, write a book, and only need to save a few thousand dollars to last you a year. In somewhere like Sydney, that would barely last a month.

The surprising thing is that the standard of living isn’t so different. Sure, by some sterile economic measure, life in Chiang Mai may seem like the dumps. But from most first-hand accounts, life here is really a breeze. In fact, it’s better than a breeze, it’s impossibly comfortable.

In trying to think of something I’m missing from Sydney, in terms of standard of living, I can’t really come up with much. At first, I thought of public transport, but then I had to laugh. Sydney’s public transport is atrocious, and taxis in Chiang Mai cost a fraction of a Sydney bus, so that point is moot. What else? Maybe health care? Touch wood, but I haven’t had to test that out yet. I can say that we had good medical experiences in Buenos Aires, Peru and India, so I imagine it’s fine here too. What else? Umm… not the state of the roads (they’re the same here), not the quality of food, not the cars, not the accommodation, hmmm.

People clearly get paid more money in the West. Though arguably it’s for work that’s less industrious; most people push paper and tick boxes back home, whereas people here more often create stuff and have to sell to real customers. I love that! But otherwise, the world outside of conflict/poverty zones seems pretty much on an even keel. Of course, there are exceptions, but I find they’re rare.

What am I getting at? I’m not really sure. I guess I’m trying to motivate others to explore and experiment. Zip to the other side of the world, set up shop, and let us know what the experience is like. Every now and then I think back to what life was like grinding away at a profession, albeit a promising one, and it makes me shudder every time. We really do feel alive now, which is such an awful cliche, but the underlying meaning makes the cliches bearable.

Many Things Are Actually Better

Take WiFi. I have a bizarre fascination with Internet speeds around the world, probably because they’re linked to my livelihood as a web developer. In India, the lack of decent Internet basically stopped this livelihood in its tracks. So I guess you could say we’re sensitive to Internet speeds as a matter of survival (or sustainability of our long-term travel).

Thailand Internet Speed Test
Internet Speed Test from my $5/night Apartment

In most of the places you think WiFi would be awesome (with the highest costs of living), it actually sucks beyond belief. Sydney, New York, and Bangalore are the absolute pits. Of all places, New York! It really is hopeless there. And Bangalore, the supposed Silicon Valley of India, ha!

What about a cheap Chiang Mai? It’s everywhere. My $5 per night room gives me a constant 5-6Mbps. I had a $2 pad thai at a restaurant last night, connected to their WiFi, and was downloading at 5Mbps. Even in the streets, there’s WiFi and large routers mounted to the telegraph poles. Admittedly it’s not free, but it’s only a couple of dollars.

Of courses it’s not all strawberries and cream; places like Thailand are labeled ‘developing’ for a reason, but man, it’s relatively difficult to make a case to go back home. Most patriotic/defensive people would say, ‘Maybe you shouldn’t come back home then’, and I’d have no other response than to say, ‘Well, that’s a brilliant idea!’