How To Live Comfortably In Chiang Mai For Under 500$ Per Month

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If you’re fed up with waiting for your freelance career/business to take off so you can afford to quit your dayjob, moving to a cheaper country can be like a cheatcode that cuts that wait in half. One of the most popular places to leave the 9/5 behind in an economical way is Chiang Mai. And for good reason.

I’ve only been here for a few weeks, and it’s already starting to feel like home. The food, culture and atmosphere, city size(not too big not too small), the moat(in all it’s dirty glory), and the contrast between hyper-developed and not-quite-so-developed. Those are just some of the things that make me like this city. There are more good things and some bad ones that I will come back to later in a different post.

 

Option #1: Find A Cheap Studio Apartment

If you’re not quite sure about this whole “location independence” thing, a furnished studio apartment is your best bet. There are plenty of affordable ones available for short term rent. Thaiapartments.net page lists a lot of your options in a pretty comprehensive manner. Easily the best resource on the internet for short term rentals in Chiang Mai(that I’m aware of). Try to remain within the 110-170$ range if possible.  (3500 – 5500 THB)

I met someone that rents an unfurnished studio apartment for 2700THB per month(83$ in today’s exchange rate) but he rents long term. For a furnished studio, the lowest I’ve seen is around 3500(107$), although I ended up renting for 5000(154$) per month. The benefit of going with a furnished apartment is that you’re likely to have easy access to things like the internet, laundromats/laundry services and things like that in addition to not having to buy furniture. Your other option is to find a guest house/hotel that does cheap monthly rentals.

Note that for some places you might have to show up in person to discuss availability, and it’s not always easy to reserve a room in advance.

Chances are your studio apartment will look something like the pictures below. (Taken from my room at Huay Kaew residence.)

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studioapartmentchiangmai

Useful links:

Option #2: Share An Apartment/House With Other People

Sharing a place is always a winner when it comes to keeping the costs down. This also means that you will have the ability to cook and do have some actual living space. If you still want a furnished apartment available for short-term rent, going for a 2 bedroom one will usually cost about 3-4 times more than a studio apartment. So expect to spend somewhere between 200-300$ per person. You could take it even further and share a studio apartment with someone.. but only if you’re absolutely certain that being forced to stay in the same room together(or out on a tiny balcony to escape) for at least a month won’t drive you both crazy.

Useful links:

And now on to the actual living.

Don’t Get Drunk So Often

Compared to your rent, alcohol, or at least going out is quite expensive. It’s really rather cheap from the perspective of a tourist, but with the goal of staying under 500$, getting drunk every day is a no go. So if you’re an alcoholic, you might want to add the expense into your budget before coming. You can get a large bottle of “chang” in a 7 Eleven or supermarket for about 50 baht, 1.25$, and in bars it costs anywhere from 70->130 depending on the place. 100->110 seems pretty standard. Including the drunken eating(if you’re anything like me), it’s easy to spend 5-700 baht on a night out, and if there’s transportation involved on the way home, that’s an extra 100-200 baht depending on your drunken bartering abilities.

If you’re wanting to stay under 500$, either make rich friends that always buys everyone drinks(and then introduce us), or keep your drunken escapades to once per week or twice per month. One of the many cool things about working for yourself, is that if you truly want to go crazy partying, you could always put in the extra work to make that possible.

Don’t Do A Lot Of Expensive Activities Or Trips.

Not being able to do many of the more popular activities is one of the biggest negatives of staying on a tight budget for me personally. Last week I had to decline an invitation to go gokarting and then ziplining, as awesome as that sounds, for pure financial reasons. Although it does give you an opportunity to be creative, and find ways to enjoy yourself without going on guided jungle tours and the like. Or if you really can’t stand it, you could opt to use this as motivation to work harder/smarter, and bring home enough money to reward yourself with some fun experiences.

Even budget traveling costs a surprising amount of money, with the actual traveling (whether by bus/plane) adding a solid amount to expenses, as well as activities. After all, what’s the point to travelling if you’re just gonna sit inside the hostel? Plus when you’re in travel mode, it’s all too easy to play off small expenses like a semi-expensive meal and a beer for the sake of enjoyment.. which is nice and all but it does add up.

Get Street Food/Eat At Cheap Restaurants/Make Budget Home-cooked Meals

Despite what some say, it is possible to eat other things than street food and remain under 500$ per month. It’s just a matter of finding the right restaurants/using the right ingredients when you cook for yourself. If you’re a bit of a foodie and you can only survive on high-end ingredients, however, you’re going to blow through the budget in about two weeks or less. If you’re a beef lover, be aware that Thai beef is typically quite tough(in my experience), and a steak from Australian beef is gonna cost you about 350 baht(10$) and upwards, about 3 times the cost of a budget home-cooked meal(for 2, or 2 servings), and 6-10 times the cost of street food. Although this could just make your weekly/bi-weekly steak an awesome event to look forward to.

Chicken/pork is affordable and the quality is more than okay by me, although I’m not particularly picky. (There are no weird creatures living inside it, there’s no mold on it, it doesn’t smell, the texture and taste is like how I remember it from home.) If you make rice or noodle based meals with pork or chicken, or some of the cheaper seafood like red/white snapper or mackerel, you can make your own food for almost as little as street food. There are also some kinds of vegetables that are cheaper than others, and there is a rather significant difference in price between vegetable markets and the super market prices, although I’m not sure what the difference in quality is. Maybe it’s best to wash properly and not eat any raw? I’m not entirely sure.

For street food, I would say generally stick to things where everything on the plate is cooked. If you get takeout, you can be sure about the cleanliness of the plates and cups as well if that worries you. I have been eating a lot of street food ever since I came to Thailand, and the one time my stomach did get upset was after I ate a burger at a bar, and had a drunken taco(street food) at night. There are some raw ingredients in both dishes, although I honestly suspect the burger. I have also been drinking the water and getting ice cubes. Maybe it’s one of those things from House where I have so many diseases at once that they’re cancelling each other out and I just appear healthy. Or maybe I am just actually healthy.

I honestly prefer street food and smaller, cheaper restaurants because you tend to interact directly with the cooks and they’re generally more grateful for your business. And I haven’t actually found more expensive restaurants to serve more delicious food. For cheap restaurants just stay away from the shopping malls, international(and some national) brand restaurants, and the most touristy areas and you’ll find many a restaurant in a flash.

Be Careful With The Air Condition

With steady use of the air condition, you could end up forking out almost as much as your rent for your electricity bill. The reason for this is partly because Thai air conditions have two settings; ineffective and fridge, then your condo or hotel charges you a premium for electricity. If you can’t stand the heat, buy a fan. Should set you back about 600-800 baht, or about one third of your first electricity bill if you use the ac all the time.

I have yet to feel anything but comfortable with an open balcony door and the fan running, and I’ve been here during the absolute hottest period of the year.

Use Affordable Transportation

Songthaew, the red pick-up trucks are fairly cheap if you want to go to one of the more popular areas, like the big shopping malls, somewhere inside the city center or one of the many city gates. But the minute you have to go somewhere a bit more remote, the price changes drastically, from 20-50 baht (depending on time of day) for popular locations, to 150-250 to more remote places. This isn’t terribly expensive, but if you have to go somewhere remote several times per week, or you live somewhere remote and need to go other places to meet up with people and shop, or you simply want the freedom and flexibility it offers, getting a scooter is probably your best bet. You can rent one from 1800-2500 baht per month, the prices seem to simply vary from place to place rather than on the type or quality of scooter, whereas bigger motorcycles tend to cost a bit more.

Or if you’re cheap like me, you’ll just make friends who have scooters and work out a deal where you pay for their gas(significantly cheaper than renting.. except maybe if they run a delivery service) in exchange for you being able to borrow their scooter every now and then.

If you know/suspect you’re going to stay for a long time you could consider buying a used one, and then reselling it when you leave, although I have little experience in that regard.

The Laundry

In many cases there will be a laundromat available in the condo complex, or at least close by. But if this is not the case, or you’re just too lazy to clean it yourself, laundry services are really rather standard. If you get your laundry done for you, expect to pay something like 150-200 baht per month. (I’ve heard some complaints about clothes shrinking and stuff, but it has never happened to me. Just don’t wear any clothes that are sensitive, or have complicated washing instructions. Or wash those yourself.)

The Budget

At the moment, 500$ = about 16,000 baht. So after 5000 for rent, 300 for internet, 150 for water, estimated: 500-800 baht for electricity, and 200 for laundry we have 9550 -9850 baht left to spend per month. If you rent a scooter, you will have around 7500-8000 baht left.

I’ve decided to stay on a 200 baht per day budget, which gives me some leeway to spend on food every day without worrying, and also have money leftover every month to spend on unexpected expenses and activities. Most slow days spent mostly at home I end up spending less than 150, unless I’m picking up a 3-day water supply or buying gas for the stove or another bigger purchase. Even if you rent a scooter, if your daily budget is 200, you can still afford to go to the movies once a week (110-150 baht depending on the cinema) and have a weekly steak, or nicer dinner. Or you could change that for a bi-weekly excursion or language/cooking lessons.

Next month I will use an app to track my spendings, as some of my more diligent friends do, but up till now, the simple version of taking out two weeks worth of money (5000 baht) and spending >200 baht on daily expenses has been working just fine. All withdrawals from foreign cards have an extra charge of 150-180 baht, so withdrawing a larger amount at once is usually the way to go. (I’ve heard of a mythical ATM that doesn’t charge extra for international cards, but I have yet to locate one! If you know where one might be, feel free to comment.)

Conclusion

Staying under 500$ is quite simple if your goal is to live and work in Chiang Mai. But not so easy if your primary goal is to travel and “experience the culture”(by going on expensive excursions every day), or to live in a state of perpetual partying (as some people like to do). And it’s quite comfortable as well. You can afford to have your clothes cleaned, dried and folded for you.  You can afford to eat out when you want. You can even afford to eat healthy. I was considering saying “relatively” as an insurance policy in case some people with drastically different notions of comfort came across this article, but I feel confident that you’re not too much of a snob.

So if you’re at that stage where you’re making some money doing something you don’t hate, but it’s not enough to pay for living expenses where you’re currently living, Chiang Mai just might be the right place for you.

If you’re having trouble deciding whether or not to go, or you’re struggling to find an apartment, or you already live in Chiang Mai and want to meet up, feel free to send me an email, or simply leave a comment.

And if you’re struggling to get past the first barrier of making that first dollar, stay put for some more in-depth information in the following weeks/month.

You might want to also check out Shannon from a little adrift and her monthly expenses in Chiang Mai(under 500$)

7 Responses

  1. Vincent May 21, 2014 / 1:55 am

    Reading things like this always makes me feel a bit guilty! Davao could be cheap too but it ends up being expensive when you take taxis on a daily basis and eat at restaurants that aren’t shady.

    I find that taking the cheaper local transportation isn’t worth the money saved because of the amount of time you lose. Jeepneys here can literally be 20X cheaper than a taxi. For example, a taxi taking me to the mall might run me 140PhP/$3 USD. That same distance can be covered by a jeepney for a mere 8PhP/$.18c USD. Difference is though, the taxi will take me 15-25 minutes depending on traffic. Jeepney? About an hour if I’m lucky.

    But then again, a studio unit in Davao will run you at least $200 for unfurnished and at least $350 for furnished. I’m sure you can find examples of places that are cheaper than that– maybe in shadier areas, but the PI can definitely swing either way (heh.)

    • Ragnar Miljeteig May 21, 2014 / 5:09 am

      Good point about time loss, although the difference isn’t usually that big here. Maybe 10 minutes extra during busy hours, they’re pretty good at picking up people that are going in the same-ish direction. The problem is that it’s not really easy to get a taxi here outside of the airport/bus station, and if you called for one and waited you’d end up spending the same amount of time. Could always take tuk tuks but for whatever reason, I don’t really like them. Either way the fastest alternative is to have your own scooter/have close friends with scooters. Whether or not you should rent one depends on how much you get outside though, but if you take taxis on a daily basis, maybe it’s a worthwile investment? I don’t know how scary traffic is in Davao though. Chiang Mai’s is perfectly liveable.

      I generally feel as safe/safer eating streetfood than at medium-range restaurants because I can actually see what they’re preparing, and how they’re preparing it. Street food tends to be very economical with the protein, so there’s no reason to suspect foul play as they wouldn’t save that much to begin with, haha. 😛 Plus when you factor in more expensive rent and servers, it’s not that hard to imagine them spending about the same amount on ingredients. I don’t know though.

  2. Ludvig Sunström May 26, 2014 / 8:22 pm

    Ragnar,
    This is nice to hear, that it’s no problem to get by on $500/month.

    “(I’ve heard of a mythical ATM that doesn’t charge extra for international cards,”

    Haha. Damn fee.

  3. Robb Gorringe May 26, 2014 / 11:04 pm

    I’m going to heading over there in October. Great tips! Thanks

    Robb

  4. Steve May 27, 2014 / 4:15 pm

    Chiang Mai is so great, isn’t it? I don’t have experience in looking for apartments, but I’ve traveled through there extensively. It’s kind of turned itself into the “it” place for people making money online abroad, hasn’t it? This is really great advice for anyone who wants to move there. Thailand is awesome and I can see why people would want to setup show in Chiang Mai in particular.

    • Ragnar Miljeteig May 28, 2014 / 3:21 am

      Haha, it’s funny because it all turned out to be common sense and no real “secrets”. The only discovery I had is how quickly things get out of hand if you’re in the “I’m travelling so it’s okay to splurge” mindset. If I’m around the next time you stop by, we should meet up!

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