In this article, I’m going to talk about my personal feelings and experiences during my time in Chiang Mai. I’ll talk about the stuff that I really like and what I don’t like about Chiang Mai.
Some people don’t want to talk about the bad things because they want to keep it positive and that’s fine, but for me, I just want to share my experiences and keep things honest. Not just raving about the good stuff.
I think you need to weigh the pros as well as the cons. Giving our honest opinions and different point of views is a way we can learn in this world and to make an informed decision.
Most of the things I love about Chiang Mai are pretty much the same as other people and it might be a bit redundant. So, let’s start with the stuff I don’t like about Chiang Mai.
First, if you’re just visiting Chiang Mai for a few days or a week or two, you probably won’t notice a lot of my dislikes. I’m talking about living in Chiang Mai for many months.
I’m not an expert in Chiang Mai, as I only lived there for 4 months. If you have lived in Chiang Mai longer and you disagree, and you have different experience, feel free to comment below. Also, I’m Thai. I can speak Thai, and I don’t need to be in a touristy place or a place that has a high English speaking area. I can go anywhere in Thailand (except the south) and live without having to worry about the language. So this is coming from my perspective.
Cons / Dislikes
- Very Touristy
This can be a good thing since more locals can speak a bit of English and the city is full of Western amenities. This is also a good thing if you have local business, but to me it was too touristy for my taste.
Travel agencies are all over the place. You can find them in a tuk-tuk, red truck taxi, hotel lobby, massage shops, and bike rental shops.
Lots of Chinese, Japanese, European, American, and everyone else come here. The Chinese come in busloads.
This is not the same Chiang Mai that people were raving about 5, 10, plus years ago. It’s not a small town anymore, it’s a growing city.
- Traffic & Air quality
I think the traffic and the air quality is poor and worse during the high season when there are more tourists. It was not as bad during the low season, but I still had to watch out in certain busier spots with lots of vehicles. I’ll talk more about this later.
The air quality is a serious issue. Before I came to Chiang Mai, I heard many people talk about how bad the air quality was but I didn’t listen. I’m one of those people who thought I was invisible.
If you have respiratory problems or asthma, I would avoid the high season and I would avoid the burning season all together. Luckily, I don’t have those health issues and from what I experienced, I would still avoid the high season and burning season, but that’s just me.
You can still come here anytime of the year, just make sure you know the risks.
I grew up in Canada and never in my life had to worry about air quality until I came to live in Thailand. I had my first carbon monoxide poisoning when I was living in Bangkok before leaving for Chiang Mai.
It wasn’t serious, I didn’t get hospitalized or needed to see a doctor, but it was my first time being sick from it. After that, I try very hard to avoid heavily congested traffic areas and stay indoors. I also started wearing a certify mask by 3M if I feel like there is too much exhaust fumes.
Buy N95 Mask > 3M Dust Respirators 8210 Plus, N95, 20-Pack
Buy N99 Mask > 3M Particulate Respirator, 10-Pack
I don’t put on the mask 100% of the time when I’m out in Chiang Mai. I only put on the mask when I’m walking along the busier parts of Chiang Mai. See map below.
These are the parts of Chiang Mai I have problems with, and I try to avoid them as much as I can, but it’s hard to avoid them when I go out. However, for other parts in Chiang Mai, they are fine. I lived about 50 yards away from one of these major roads and I didn’t have any problem, it’s only when I am right next or in the traffic, then I will notice the exhaust fumes and I need to put on a mask.
If I’m not walking next to or in one of these roads, I don’t have to worry about the air quality but if I’m next to these roads I’ll have my mask ready.
You can also see how the roads are structured. Most people will need to go on the major roads and there are not many short cuts. I think the air pollution problem wouldn’t be as bad if the roads were more organized.
I spent my first week in Chiang Mai in a hotel that was a 20-minute drive from the old city. The area was very quiet, and I didn’t have any issues with the air quality or traffic. When I signed my 3-month lease with my new apartment, it was located just minutes from the old city and not too far away from one of the major roads in the city.
During my first three weeks living in that apartment, it was mid-January (still the high season), sometimes when I’m outside the air quality was so bad in certain areas that I wanted to leave Chiang Mai. Remember, this is coming from a guy who thought he was invisible. But I had already signed the 3-month leasing contract for my apartment and I didn’t want to lose my deposit. So I ended up staying until my lease ran out.
With all that said, I was glad I stayed for the full three months. During my last month living in Chiang Mai in April, which was the start of the low season, I noticed less people on the roads, less tourists, and air quality was not as bad as the previous months. When the low season came, I finally realized why so many people fell in love with the city. I’ll talk about why here: Things I love about Chiang Mai.
- The Burning Season (Jan – Apr)
During the first few months of each year between January to April is the annual burning of the rice fields. The side effect of that is haze and smog.
I didn’t notice too much of a difference in terms of air quality during the burning season. Although, when I was on the Mea Teang River, just a few hours’ drive from Chiang Mai City, I noticed the burning smell but it was not too irritating to me like the exhaust fumes in the city.
Even when I was inside the city, I didn’t notice any smell from the burning of the rice fields. The biggest impact I noticed was no blue sky and often you could hardly see the sun. If you’re coming during these months, don’t expect to see nice clear blue sky.
Also, here is a video of someone hiking outside on the rice fields who had a hard time breathing and almost died from overdosing on his inhaler.
- Lack of Meter-Taxi & Mass Transportation
Not a whole lot of metered taxis in Chiang Mai. They are here but very hard to find and if you find one, it’s usually not available. If they are available, they probably charge a fixed rate and I think it’s going to be at least 200 to 300 baht average going anywhere inside the city. I personally would not pay anything more than 150 baht going anywhere within the city.
On the other hand, there are many tuk-tuk and the red trucks. Red trucks cost 20-60-baht max. For the red trucks I resist paying anything higher than 60 baht and on average, I only pay 20 baht for the red trucks.
There is no subway and there is no skytrain like the one they have in Bangkok. You will be tempted to rent a scouter or motorbike, but if you do not have any experience riding one, I would avoid doing it and get a bicycle instead or take tuk-tuk, red truck or walk. I never saw so many foreigners wearing a cast or walking around with crutches during my time there.
If you do decide to get a scouter or a motorbike, make sure you have the proper insurance or an international driving permit or a Thai driving license.
Some insurance companies may not cover you if you operate a scouter/car without a proper international driving permit or a proper license for that country. Your driving license from your home country is not an international driving permit or a license to drive in Thailand.
There are no beaches in Chiang Mai, so if you want to swim in the sea or take long walks on the beaches – Chiang Mai is not for you. But you can always rent a place with a nice swimming pool.
Then again, I can’t imagine how many tourists and expats would be living there if there was a beach.
Pros / Likes
- Cost Of Living
Very affordable and easy on the wallet, but this can be said for all of Thailand. You can bootstrap for $500-$600 USD per month if need to, or spend $1,000 – $2,000 USD per month or more if that’s your budget.
- Very Friendly Locals
When I visited other tourist hot spots around Thailand, I always keep my guard up for scams, or what I like to I call them, hustling.
For me, Chiang Mai doesn’t feel like that, the venders are not up in your face, even the tuk-tuk drivers appear to give me fair rates. Although I still negotiate with the tuk-tuk and had to walk away a few times.
Many times these taxi drivers or tuk-tuk drivers get a bad rap. I know I give them a hard time a few times. But it’s a hard job and their salary is not all that great. So, they have to hustle very hard to make a living. I understand that.
Overall, a very friendly place and I feel very safe. I saw many seniors living in Chiang Mai and I even saw one walking around alone at night sometimes. Although, I don’t recommend people walking around in a foreign country in the middle of the night.
You don’t need to know Thai, although knowing the language in the place you’re visiting or living in is super beneficial. Most hotel staff in Chiang Mai can understand basic English and some speak other languages like Chinese. This is mainly because there is a large university in the city teaching English to many young adults.
- Beautiful Temples
Some of the most beautiful temples I’ve seen in Thailand are here in Chiang Mai and you don’t have to go too far to visit a temple. Take an afternoon off and walk inside the Old City, where there are many beautiful ancient temples.
- Amazing Food, Restaurants, Fruits, Coffee Shops & Cafe
You’ll find amazing, world class restaurants and street food. The best Mexican food I ever ate was here in Chiang Mai (out of all places). You can check out this article about some of my favourite foods and restaurants in Chiang Mai here.
- Saturday & Sunday Night Markets
If you love shopping and good food, this is something you need to check out. Check out this article about these night markets.
- Cool Weather (Oct to Feb)
During the winter months while I was there, it got as cool as 8c for 2-3 days, on average it was about 20c in the morning and about 25-30c in the afternoons. Things start to get very hot after Feb, about 30c.
- Big Community For Vegetarians, Cyclists, Digital Nomad, Retirees
It’s a great place to meet and network with like-minded people. If that’s your thing, you might want to consider visiting Chiang Mai.
Also, it’s a great place for all ages, family, young, middle age and seniors. None of that red light district and very safe, well, unless you drive.
After living in Chiang Mai for a few months and trying out new things, I was glad I didn’t leave early. I really like Chiang Mai and I understand why so many people from other countries live or visit Chiang Mai. But the air quality is just something I cannot stand and it’s not going to stop any time soon as more and more people visit the city. It’s the only reason why I can’t live there long term.
Don’t let me discourage you. I talked to many expats who came to Chiang Mai 30 some odd years ago and they still come here. I also talked to another American who only lives in Chiang Mai every time he comes to Thailand and he’s never been to other parts of Thailand.