There are more expats and foreigners here than I imagined
Well, the secret is out. Northern Thailand is a paradise. And every other foreigner is either living here or visiting. There have been many instances where I have been out and about and there have been more white people than Thais. Many of the amazing restaurants (vegan, Italian, Israeli, etc.) are run by foreigners and usually their Thai wife or Thai business partner. As a result, the format of the city has been diluted with foreign influence. Chiang Mai is a multicultural place and sometimes you forget that you are in Thailand.
The city is touristy
For some reason, I expected Chiang Mai to be a low key, sleepy little city. I read that it was progressive and laid back and so I pictured lots of empty roads, hidden nature-scapes, and locals roaming around quietly. Instead, it is a bustling, growing city that has evolved to cater to its visitors. Downtown, prices for restaurants, bars, shops, tuk-tuks, and even markets are raised because of the influx of tourists. There are a lot of people everywhere. You can take any tour imaginable… For example: bathe elephants, hike to a waterfall, take a cooking class, go zip-lining through the jungle, and so on. Now, I live outside the city to avoid the tourists and the tourist prices.
Almost everyone speaks English
With tourism comes accommodation, comfort, and ease for the tourists. Tourists are more likely to come to a place where they know that they can experience something foreign without a communication barrier. Many Thais have realized that they can find more opportunities and success if they speak English. Some Thais are also very interested in talking with foreigners or maybe they want to be in a relationship with one. English is spoken and written just about everywhere. So much so that it has been difficult for me to pick up Thai because I can easily communicate in English.
Thai is easier to learn than you think
Many foreigners who live in Chiang Mai do not know Thai. They say it is difficult to learn because of the tones and how different it is structured from their own language. Part of immersing yourself in a new place is learning their language. I know many other foreigners who have picked up Thai because they force themselves to hang out with only Thais. You can easily take Thai language classes, higher a tutor, or immerse yourself more. With Thais, you usually have to be more outgoing at first, but they are very welcoming people. Just try it!
Dealing with Immigration is complex and confusing
One of the worst parts about living in Thailand is dealing with immigration. Bureaucracy, in general, is a hassle. When dealing with visas and all the other things that come along with it, make sure that you are on the ball. Constantly check in with the people, schools, or companies that are helping you get a visa. Rules change all the time and you have to be proactive. You will likely have to deal with a lot of annoying tasks that could have been avoided if you were more informed. It is so annoying, but that is the reality of having the privilege of living in Thailand.
There are police checks in downtown Chiang Mai and other parts outside the city on the way to other places (like Pai). They begin in the late morning and end in the early afternoon (usually). The police are checking for helmets and Thai licenses. If you are not following the rules, they will charge you 500 baht and give you a ticket. If police charge you less and don’t give you a ticket, that’s a bribe. Make sure you get a written ticket. Yes, they absolutely target foreigners. It is annoying, but just follow the rules or avoid the checkpoints.
Alcohol can get expensive
Food, housing, transportation, water, electricity, and gas are cheap cheap cheap! But, if you drink, it can add up. For example, a plate of street food can cost around $1 USD and a large beer can cost up to $3 USD. For some, alcohol is medicine. Cut alcohol costs by buying from 7-11 or a little mom and pop convenience store. If you buy drinks at a restaurant or a bar, prices are doubled and tripled.
There are A LOT of bugs and lizards
I know there are a lot of lizards because I have to sweep away their poop on my balcony all the time. And, also, how can I ignore their very loud mating calls at night? Rain brings flying termites that are obsessed with lights and they will show up in swarms of hundreds and thousands. Hundreds of ants will come marching in if you leave a single crumb. Once, there were hundreds of termites that birthed from my wooden stair. I told my landlord and she chalked it up to rainy season and said mai pen rai (it’s ok / don’t worry). Thais are way less fazed by bugs than me. I have become my own hero, even killing spiders and roaches with my bare hands. This is the price I pay for living in the jungle.
You can get anything you need
Thailand is not a third world country. There is a wonderful grocery store called Rimping. They are all over the city. You can get any snack or foreign food item here because they are stocked with imports. Yes, it is a bit more expensive than going somewhere local. Big C has any basic item as well, like a Walmart. You can find what you need anywhere in the city. I am always looking for special herbs, vitamins, holistic medications and toiletries, even organic produce and I have it all here. If anyone has ever wanted what you need, it probably exists somewhere.
Chiang Mai sucks you in
People have asked me: why do you live in Chiang Mai? Well, I have always wanted to go to Asia and Chiang Mai was my first stop. And I never left. I ran out of money, found a great job as a teacher, felt comfortable, and fell in love with a guy. One way or another, Chiang Mai will embrace you with all its wonders and comforts and you won’t want to leave either. Come experience it for yourself!