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, stumbling into a scene like something from a movie. The sky was filled with a steady stream of shifting, swirling new constellations, each launch a miniature party taking place anywhere and everywhere in the city. Each lantern would then float up and blend in with the crowd, one of many to everyone but the most eagle-eyed observer, drifting higher and higher until eventually running out of fuel and flickering out, seemingly from existence.
We purchased a lantern of our own on the street to set off as midnight approached – it even came with the use of a lighter to get the party started. We watched a few launches► for instructional purposes, and then, with nerdy excitement, let it go►, our tiny contribution to the tapestry. As the clock wound down and the crowds thickened, we still found it easy to carve out some space for ourselves. We savored every moment until the stroke of midnight, when the sky erupted with fireworks in and among the lanterns, and we knew we were living a memory we’d cherish for the rest of our lives.
Food & Drink
There wasn’t much of a point trying to cook for ourselves in Chiang Mai. Where we stayed, purchasing ingredients for a meal cost more than the same meal at a restaurant (plus, no dishes). We ate out almost every day, selecting from an endless number of small family-run eateries with brightly-colored plastic chairs up and down Suthep Road. Portions were smaller than we were used to; perfectly us-sized, but rarely resulting in leftovers. On average, a meal cost no more than $1-1.50 per plate. The bulk of the dish was usually rice or noodles, with plenty of veggies and only tangential amounts of meat. Pork, chicken, and shrimp were most common, though beef was definitely available. We also ran into a couple of restaurants and market stalls that specialized in fish. This seemed like a dangerous gamble so far inland, in tropical heat and with poor food storage options, but it turns out people are pretty clever.
Our favorite was probably khao soi, an indescribably good dish that rocketed to the top of our all-time best meal list, joined by the many variations of pad thai, pad see ew, fried rice, curries, and just about everything else we tried. Establishments put their best food forward, filling their front windows with the freshest ingredients or showing off their sizzling wok skills. We’d choose whoever seemed to be on their cooking game, though crowded tables and long lines were an equally reliable indicator. Each table got a standard palette of spices and seasonings. The food coming hot off the wok was relatively plain, and each patron was expected to season to their own tastes. This was a lifesaver for easing into the local preference for piquant that puts the Western world to shame.
Despite the availability of cheap eats, we did a small amount of at-home cooking. The kitchen was small, with just two electric burners and a couple frying pans (fine for eggs or something, but practicing our stir fry was impossible without the concentrated heat of a gas stove and a wok to use on it). Street vendors supplied all the produce we needed, but there were some supplies that necessitated finding a store with a roof. 7-Eleven was always the closest choice, since they seem to exist in a kind of superposition where every building in the city is also a numerically-themed minimart. Tops Daily supermarket had a bit more selection, including what we discovered were expensive western luxuries: chocolate, milk, and bread/pasta… anything made of wheat, really. Without a reliable source of chocolate, Danielle had to experiment more to satisfy her sweet tooth. Mango sticky rice one of the local desserty indulgences. We also discovered a snack that was some sort of wafer sprinkled with bits of egg, which became a fast favorite. Probably the simplest of pleasures was fresh palm sugar; unlike the hard dry bricks that get exported around the world, the local stuff was thick and creamy, with a texture similar to honey and a taste somewhere between maple sugar and pure bliss.
We couldn’t bear the thought of leaving all the brilliant food to memory, so we signed up for a cooking class from Thai Orchid Cookery School↗ so we could take it with us. Our instructor A demonstrated proper technique in simple and easy-to-follow steps, and before long we were expertly crafting spring rolls, curries, pad thai, and banana pudding. The lesson was expertly paced, with just a bit of knife skills to break up the lectures, cooking, and eating (most of the prep work done for us in advance). While our instructor boasted about being able to feast on the super-spicy peppers that are a large part of the cuisine, we settled for smaller amounts in our dishes (a small handful in Kevin’s version, half of a single pepper in Danielle’s). We even received an thorough recipe book with everything we made and more to help us recreate our successes.
If meals alone were the metric, Chiang Mai would already run away with the crown (at least until our next stop↗). But there is another category in which Thailand dominates: snack foods. Potato chips, for example, came in dozens of exotic flavors that we’d never encountered before, like seaweed, lobster, shrimp, scallop, and miang kam. Just about every chip and cracker flavor felt indulgent and shamed the offerings of most countries we’ve visited before or since. There were a few more esoteric bites as well, like fried insects or larvae. Those were a bit outside our zone of interest – we tried them once, but we’re not going to be sitting down for a football game with a bowl of fried crickets anytime soon. On our walks, we’d frequently come across new sweets that stretched our credulity. Waffles apparently make a good handheld breakfast, and pancakes were sometimes loaded with strange ingredients. Blueberries or chocolate chips are great, how about corn? Coffee was also ubiquitous, but not like anything we were used to. It was universally iced, sweetened, and structurally more condensed milk than anything related to its namesake.
Alcohol mostly comes in the form of light beer. One surprise exception was a single locally-produced red wine that we found at a specialty shop on Nimman Road. Naga Red Blend wasn’t especially memorable, definitely not the best we’ve ever had, but it was interesting to sample a wine from a region so hostile for grapes. Macrobrew lagers were nothing special either, prioritizing refreshment over depth of flavor. There were a few bars that catered to demanding tastes though, offering imports that made us feel right at home.
Navigation on foot in Chiang Mai can sometimes be more parkour than pedestrian. Sidewalks were not at all what we were used to – often broken or irregular, rising and falling from one block to the next (sometimes with stairs, sometimes just ending in a miniature cliff), and occasionally disappearing entirely. Traffic in Thailand is insane too, with a huge range of vehicles darting wildly between one another and with no respect for crosswalks. We discovered the right way to cross a street was just to go for it. Drivers are very used to avoiding obstacles and would yield or find another lane as long as we crossed at a steady, predictable pace.
There was no shortage of obstacles off the road, either. Sidewalks were frequently broken up by trees, roots, construction, destruction, cockroaches (especially at night!), snack stands, dogs, parked cars, garbage waiting to be picked up, and all manners of mystery stains. Sewers were cut-and-cover ditches, so the sidewalks sometimes doubled as the cover. We usually didn’t worry about the wobbly concrete blocks tipping or giving way, but they also weren’t particularly airtight. It wasn’t as difficult to get around as it sounds, but walking took a lot more out of us than we expected.
There isn’t really any public transit to speak of, so longer journeys required hitching a ride on a songthaew or tuk-tuk. Songthaews – the famous red trucks of Chiang Mai – ply the city streets in large numbers and are the cheapest way to get around. Since we stood out as tourists, we got honked at by hopeful drivers constantly. We’d explain our destination and see if the driver was interested in heading that way, and if they were amiable, settle on the price (usually around $1) before climbing in. Then it was time to hold on tight. Some rides could be more than a little nerve-wracking, especially since there was nothing to stop us from flying out the back. Other passengers could be picked up at any point, but few people made their way to our neck of the woods and we often had the car to ourselves. Curiously, we discovered we had to give directions in terms of landmarks. As a general rule, drivers didn’t understand maps, sometimes spending way too long poking at our phone directions before admitting they had no clue what we were asking. They were intelligent and capable with verbal navigation, but a top-down image was just not something they needed or cared about.
Stuff of interest
We went with dtac as a mobile provider↗. Two SIMs with 3 gigs of data each were about $26.
ATMs were easy to find, but the fees for withdrawing money with a foreign card were shocking (on the order of $6 US per transaction). We were very glad that we opened a new checking account before we hit the road with a bank that reimburses all ATM fees anywhere in the world. We did not abuse the privilege though, and made as large of withdraws as possible to consolidate and minimize the extra charges.
Since this was our first stop, we made an extra effort to learn at least basic Thai phrases (especially the food-related ones), and even managed to get a grasp on numbers before we left, to the amusement of vendors that were impressed when we comprehended both prices and spices. That said, it wasn’t hard to find an English-speaker when needed. It’s the working language of ASEAN↗, and Thailand has set aggressive targets for improving English literacy among its citizens. Most prices were displayed in Arabic numerals, and though few restaurant owners spoke much English, we never had a problem simply pointing at what we wanted and paying whatever price they jotted down on a scrap of paper.
The “cool” season felt almost unbearable to us, with a daily high usually around 30C or 90F. We sweated in shorts and t-shirts while locals would stroll by in coats or heavy jeans. Clearly experiences are relative, but I feel like the hot season would melt us.
What we learned
Thailand was an excellent first country to visit. It was a great mix of challenges, new experiences, and payoff that reassured us that this way of life was worth the hassle. Thai culture emphasizes staying cool, being positive, and smiling at strangers, which made us feel welcome even if it wasn’t always necessarily sincere.
This was our first experience being the minority. It was an interesting perspective to be on the receiving end of stereotypes, even if they weren’t outright negative (like “Westerners have money”). For a couple of introverts, sticking so far out seems like a nightmare scenario. But there was something kind of freeing about not just suspecting that everyone was staring at you, but knowing it for a fact. It’s not just social anxiety! But we still have to eat, so eating our discomfort it is.
On the subject of eating, real Thai food has ruined the “Thai food” that we were used to. American-style pad thai will always leave us wanting now that we’ve sampled straight from the source and with fresh ingredients. The only answer is to someday return, hopefully to recapture the magic and stuff it into our faces.