December 8, 2015 – January 5, 2016 (Height of “cool” season)
Gratitude: Khop khun kha (women speaking) /khrap (men speaking)
Currency: Baht (฿)
Visa: 30 days
Cost of living: Low
Contemplating our first stop as digital nomads, we had no idea where to begin. But after peeking around other travel blogs and online resources, one name quickly rose to the top of the pile: Chiang Mai. This mid-sized city in Northern Thailand is cheaper and more laid-back than Bangkok or Ko Samui, but well-connected both online and off. The relative popularity among the tech and travel crowd also meant we had a wealth of resources to get us started, from meetup groups to blogs and literature, and a ton of tourist infrastructure that we could keep at arm’s length or take advantage of as we saw fit. Best of all, its far-flung location at a crossroad of Thai, Burmese, and Laotian cultures makes it a hotspot for delicious, spicy foods of all kinds.
Chiang Mai’s metro area has about a million people, but the city officially has less than 200,000, meaning it still feels compact and approachable. There was much that we found new, different, exciting, and even scary, but overall the city was just what we needed: a welcoming jump in the deep end that would get us moving and inspire the rest of our journey.
Where we stayed
Our first ever extended-stay Airbnb↗ was a modest and inexpensive apartment positioned squarely in the middle of everything, yet somehow near nothing. We were well outside the Old City walls (where most tourists stay) but not as far as Nimmanahaeminda (Nimman) Road, the hipster area populated by equal parts university students and expats. Instead, our neighborhood was in the shadow of Wat Suan Dok, which was once the outskirts or suburbs but is now bustling with activity from the nearby university and hospitals. Being surrounded by locals with odd schedules had an unexpected benefit: a plethora of inexpensive, round-the-clock street food and restaurants on our doorstep. There was also a handy grocery store, ubiquitous 7-Elevens, and all kinds of fruit vendors that made grabbing a meal or ingredients incredibly easy.
While we were satisfied with where we ended up, we didn’t yet know what we do now – it’s never too early to book. Two months notice gave us enough leeway to find a “western-style” apartment that had everything we needed – wifi, kitchen, a separate bedroom, decent location – but left us paying more for less. Even as we zeroed in on our favorites in the act of choosing, we saw places disappear under our noses as our month-long stay was spoiled by a weekend booking here or there. Still, the one we settled on was sufficient for our needs, and even managed to have a few tricks up its sleeve that blew our neophyte traveler minds. Electrical outlets adapted to fit both standard US and Thai plugs saved us from breaking out our adapters just yet, and an in-line water heater provided hot showers without the cost and complexity of a tank. We also did have air conditioning, but tried not to use it since we were charged separately for electricity (a common practice in tropical places).
The fatal flaw in our apartment from a digital nomad perspective was its complete impracticality for getting work done. We only had one wobbly table that folded down from the wall, and stiff little wood-block chairs to go with it. The apartment did little to assuage the tropical heat, even with a fan bravely blowing humidity from one corner to the other. The climate was particularly hard on our computers. The only real relief was in the early morning hours. We savored the cool night air for free, and were further treated to the purest and most beautiful smells of the tropical flora at dawn… until the planes started taking off and the early risers started contributing to the sewage system, anyway.
We experienced quite a bit of take-off and landing noise during the day from the nearby airport. Between midnight and 6 a.m. there are no regular flights, which left only the dogs to disturb the peace, an activity they relished. In the midday heat pets and strays alike were content to lie around in patches of shade, not bothering to crack an eyelid as we passed. At night though, they were out to declare their presence by barking at anything and nothing. Given a choice between open window/cool air/noise and closed window/stuffy air/still noise, we tolerated the barking, but next time we’d choose an apartment with fewer four-legged neighbors.
Like most places in Thailand, tap water is not considered safe for drinking. Water being fairly important for life, Chiang Mai compensates for this by having ample water delivery services and UV purification machines on seemingly every block. At a penny or two per liter, this is much cheaper than purchasing bottled water at a supermarket (and less time-consuming than boiling it ourselves). We never found this too onerous, and we weren’t unreasonably scared of the untreated water, either. We used tap water to cook rice and brush our teeth without issue, though we did keep a filtered bottle by the sink for a second swish.
Washing machines are rare in individual apartments but commonly placed throughout neighborhoods. We did our washing half a block from our home for just a few coins a pop. The small building had half a dozen machines, free wifi, and only a few mosquitoes.
The mosquitoes were far less awful than we imagined, but we quickly learned that we were sharing our apartment with hundreds of tiny friends in another form: ants. We tried ant chalk to stop them, which was effective in preventing them from crossing the chalk. Unfortunately, the ants were equally effective at finding detours around it. By the end of our stay, our apartment trim could have been mistaken for a chalk mine. For their part, the ants were mostly passing through and left our foodstuffs alone. The one glaring exception was fried chicken – in the seconds between our last bites and clearing the table, they managed to coat the remaining bones in a pulsing mass of ant bodies. Not all of the critters we found in our building were so much trouble, though.
What we did
Temples are to Chaing Mai as coffee shops are to Seattle. There are temples across the street from temples and kitty corner from more temples. The most popular, like Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Phra Singh, were beautiful, but we preferred the ones with a lower selfie stick quotient. Introverts can rejoice that with so many to choose from, there are many that end up overlooked, perfect for a quiet moment of reflection and escape from the crowds. Wat Suan Dok, despite being one of the biggest and most beautiful in the city, sat in a tourism no-man’s land… just steps from our apartment. The temples themselves are an experience. Intricately decorated inside and out, the centerpiece was usually a glittering gold representation of the Buddha. Monks seeking alms wandered down our street most mornings and often hosted regular events during the day to explain their way of life. We were careful to show the proper respect (wear modest clothes, take off shoes before entering, back away from the Buddha rather than turning around), but beyond that we needn’t have stressed too much about sticking out. Most people were either welcoming or completely indifferent to our presence, if there was anyone else around at all.
The hills outside the city are home to Doi Suthep-Pui National Park and Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, one of the most sacred sites in the area. We caught a songthaew across from the North Gate; the driver waited around for enough passengers to fill both benches before we set off up the winding, narrow mountain road. The summit was much cooler than the city below, though the stairs to the temple were nevertheless a workout. Doi Suthep (which is the name of the mountain the temple is on and incorrect as shorthand for the temple, though lots of people use it as such anyway) was the most touristed of any temple we visited, but was still very much worth the trip. The interior houses beautiful statues of jade and metal, and an enormous stupa. Visitors topped up oil lamps. Above all, the elevation offered towering views over the city below.
The Sunday Night Market along Ratchadamnoen Road is also known as the “walking street,” though we never achieved speeds higher than “shuffle.” Packed to the brim with souvenirs, phone cases, knock-off clothes, and so, so many people, it was probably the furthest thing possible from our ideal evening. But we did have fun getting a glimpse of another side of the city, and more importantly, a taste of another side of the cuisine. We gorged ourselves on to-go noodle bowls, mango sticky rice, and “noodle tubes,” a surprise hit. Some temples have food vendors set up just inside their gates, a more peaceful and less pushy alternative to snacking on the main thoroughfare. For entertainment, there were several stages with rotating acts from traditional songs to pop covers to dance-school recitals, plus plenty of buskers to fill the spaces between.
During the day, different markets around the city focus on all sorts of staples and specialty items – veggies, meat, fabrics, kitchen supplies, household goods, flowers, and more. It was well worth exploring any we stumbled into, as they generally offered much better deals than the grocery stores and minimarts in our neighborhood. Bargaining was generally expected for souvenirs and other goods, but bartering over the cost of food is not. Ingredients and meals are already so cheap that it is considered quite rude to ask for a lower price. Better to turn down the purchase altogether if the price isn’t right, or better yet, buy it anyway and enjoy.
Chiang Mai had the honor of kickstarting our grand tradition of stumbling into epic celebrations. Of course, we knew our stay overlapped with New Year’s Eve, but we were not expecting just what a big deal that would be. Somehow, we managed to forget about the existence of the city’s famous sky lanterns until just a few days before the holiday, and became giddy in anticipation. Would we get to launch one ourselves? Where they even still a thing?
That night, we headed for Tha Phae Gate, ground zero for the festivities. We grabbed dinner at a German restaurant that also served Thai dishes as we watched the streets grow crowded outside and counted the hours until midnight. Without warning, we caught sight of a few glittering points of light in the far-off night sky. We quickly settled up and made our way outside%