I’ve dedicated quite a bit of content over the last year to the sharing of some of my experiences since indefinitely moving abroad to Chiang Mai to live out my early retirement dreams as a young dividend expat.
Life has been great, which is why the content has reflected that cheery optimism. I have nothing to complain about.
My first year here has been filled with amazing experiences, food, and people. It would be crazy for me to be anything but blissfully happy.
However, I don’t want things to be so one-sided that people feel like I’m giving an inaccurate take on life over here. I don’t want it to look like I’m sweeping things under the rug.
While my life has been truly wonderful since relocating, it’s not perfect. It’ll never be. Life is never perfect.
And so of course there are drawbacks to living in Chiang Mai, just as there will be drawbacks to living any lifestyle in any location.
With that in mind, I wanted to discuss three particular drawbacks to living here.
These are drawbacks that I’ve personally experienced since moving here over one year ago. This is just my perspective on things – living my lifestyle, being who I am, coming here with my expectations.
Others might list totally different drawbacks – maybe the modest nightlife scene or something like that. As the Thai people like to say: “Up to you.”
I’m in a unique position. I’m retired and living off of dividend income in my 30s, which is uncommon. Moreover, I’m also a passionate entrepreneur who enjoys being around like-minded peers. I want to have high-speed conversations, learn, and grow. Chiang Mai drew me in partly out of this consideration – it’s a hub for digital nomads, online entrepreneurs, remote workers, and people generally thinking outside the box.
Now, none of the following are deal-breakers, nor are any of these drawbacks particularly problematic for me personally. The pros still vastly outweigh the cons, and I find Thailand to be a very advantageous place to live.
These are just a few very minor issues that I’ve noticed since living here.
Let’s dive in…
Chiang Mai has a “smoky season” which is basically a two-month period around February and March in which a forested area of the nearby mountainside is burned in order to make room for new crops.
It’s an agricultural phenomenon here that leads to a significant increase in air pollution around this time. The fact that this season occurs precisely when it’s driest (obviously) makes the city smoggy for about 60 days or so. Furthermore, this adds to what is already a high amount of air pollution in general.
While it hasn’t bothered me in terms of my ability to breathe or anything like that, there’s a haziness that I’ll notice if someone points it out to me. And many others have reported that it does bother them. For me, there’s just a heaviness to the air that I pick up on if I stop to think about it. So it’s just an individual call here.
Many expats and digital nomads actually temporarily leave the city (or avoid it in the first place) during this stretch. They go to the islands. Or to Bangkok. Or even outside the country.
That’s a good or a bad thing, depending on your perspective. The city definitely isn’t as crowded around then. Being the optimist I am, I always see the bright side of things. Watching a bunch of people leave, which opens up the city for a while, doesn’t exactly break my heart.
I would stop well short of indicating this is something that reduces my personal quality of life here, but I’d obviously prefer a situation in which this smoky season didn’t exist at all.
The simple and cheap solution to this is buying a mask (if the air becomes bothersome). That’s what some of the locals (who have issues with it) do.
Small City With No Beach
This is pretty obvious. But it’s worthy of discussion.
Chiang Mai has a population of ~130,000, although it feels much, much larger and more populated due to the dynamic energy and density of the place. Plus, there are many tourists that come here and add to the numbers (which I’ll talk about in the next point).
For perspective, I’d actually say that Chiang Mai feels like a much larger and more “alive” place than, say, Portland, Oregon (a US city that’s over four times larger and one I’ve been to and experienced for myself). I see some similarities between Portland and CM, which is why I like to sometimes make that comparison. That said, Asian cities in general are just way more dense and intense than most cities in America.
But Chiang Mai’s central area has a small footprint. And the “sois” throughout that core have a certain romantic quality to them as you walk around at night, scoping out a place for dinner. It’s a quaint, relatively quiet place that scores high for livability. That’s part of why I moved here.
However, there’s definitely a lack of amenities that someone might like to see if they prefer the big city.
This is because Chiang Mai is more centered around nature. So if you’re a nature lover, I’d say Chiang Mai is especially fantastic. Personally, I’m a city guy. Chiang Mai is urban and gets the job done, but it could be a lot better in this department.
Public transportation in the traditional sense is severely lacking (but growing); there are no high-rise buildings (or architectural significance in general); urban parks are limited and underwhelming; there are practically no cultural institutions like museums and theater; the airport is more regional in nature, making domestic and international travel more difficult; the sidewalks can be non-existent in many places; and the international food options leave something to be desired in terms of both quantity and quality.
Chiang Mai can feel small after a while. This is just something to keep in mind.
And because it is quite a small city, its burgeoning popularity works against itself – many of the best places in town are becoming very crowded.
I sometimes find it funny and strange that I’m pulled to bigger cities, even though they’re filled with elements (consumerism, the grind, stress, etc.) that are antithetical to what I want out of life.
But I do love public transit, culture, vibrancy, walkability, good food, etc. So urbanity is important to me. But others would much prefer living in a more rural setting (in which case, the surrounding areas of Chiang Mai might be perfect).
While we’re on the topic of surroundings, there’s no beach in Chiang Mai.
No duh, right?
I clearly knew that coming in, but it’s notable in a country that has some of the world’s most renowned beaches.
I’m not a huge beach person (I can’t even swim), but I do enjoy having nearby access to a world-class beach for occasional visits.
This is just a very small drawback to living in Chiang Mai (compared to, say, Phuket or Koh Samui).
It comes down to whether you prefer a cooler winter climate with surrounding mountains, or a warmer year-round climate with the water and beaches. I prefer the latter, all else equal, but it’s also just a very quick flight to any number of beautiful islands. It’s super cheap to travel within the country of Thailand, which is awesome.
Chiang Mai is also isolated. The city is way up in the north of the country. It’s not as central as Bangkok, meaning getting to other areas of the country can be more time consuming and/or expensive than cities that are more centrally located.
This translates to international travel, too. If you have any designs on traveling in/out of Thailand frequently, Chiang Mai is not optimal.
Chiang Mai is an incredibly cost-effective place to live.
In my mind, this city offers the highest quality of life at the lowest cost of living out of anywhere on this planet. The spread between QOL and COL is wider than anywhere else I know of – and I spent considerable time looking.
That’s a huge advantage to living here, right?
Weirdly enough, though, it’s also a bit of a drawback.
First up, it attracts a huge number of tourists, especially tourists looking to get the most bang for their buck. The tourism from China in particular has absolutely exploded recently.
Because Chiang Mai is such a cheap place, that sometimes works against itself. The city can attract, as my buddy Andrew puts it, low-caliber people who can’t afford to go anywhere else. You know, like these people. Many people come here because their economic resources give them no choice.
Then there are the bummy, know-it-all backpackers who clog up the streets, markets, and cafes with their… umm… aura.
Furthermore, as someone who’s a passionate entrepreneur that’s been working online since 2011, the city can be disappointing. Whereas it’s sometimes sold as a place where successful entrepreneurs congregate, it’s largely anything but that.
A good number of “entrepreneurs” here are actually just shysters trying to sell people a dream (i.e., a lie).
Most others are just starting out. They come here precisely because they don’t know a thing about making money online. Chiang Mai is cheap, giving them a long runway and access to other like-minded people.
But this can harm newbie entrepreneurs. Life in Chiang Mai is so undemanding that it’s easy to get lulled into a sense of complacency.
It’s such a cheap place to live, there’s effectively no pressing need to go out there and do very much with your life. If you actually live/retire here, you can easily end up in a trap of do-nothingness.
This is vastly different from most cities in the world. Most places apply that external pressure to go out there and grind (which is obviously one reason I enjoy living in Chiang Mai).
A little bit of money in Chiang Mai goes a loooooong way. And it’s easy to live in this little bubble and assume that the whole world must be like this – which definitely isn’t the case.
Look, I’m a very self-disciplined guy. Even though I’m FIRE, that doesn’t mean I’m complacent to just sit back and leisurely laze about every day. That pressure to grind isn’t there. But I grind anyway – on my own terms.
I’m in the coffee shop producing and consuming content seven days per week. I write 15-20 articles every single month, all while reading and viewing countless hours of material as I push myself to grow as a person, writer, entrepreneur, and investor. Knowing how much more there is to learn excites and motivates me.
I’m at the gym six days per week so that I can exert myself physically. Since so much of my work is done online, the gym time keeps me grounded to my physical connection with the world. It gets my hands dirty. And it’s a very tactile way to keep me rooted, reminding how real “hard work” feels.
Having a punishing physical fitness schedule keeps me physically strong, mentally sharp, healthy, and confident. And that all feeds back into everything else I do.
I have this chip on my shoulder that drives me to outperform even my own lofty expectations and make sure this apple falls very far from the tree. The amount of will I have to move forward, become successful, and live my best life is pretty intense.
I’ve learned that work makes leisure more enjoyable (and vice versa).
But even I sometimes feel a small sense of complacency kicking in. There’s not much of an external motivation to do anything I do. It’s all internally driven.
Now, just imagine what that would be like if you don’t have a lot of self-discipline.
I’ll share with you two different sides of the coin on how this often plays out here in Chiang Mai.
First, you get a lot of the young “entrepreneurs” (or wantrepreneurs, more accurately) that come here. The “digital nomad” set. The failure rate among this group of people has to be near 100%. For sure. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen so much self-aggrandizement and “faking it till you make it” in order to sell things to naive people who will buy into a myth.
I’ve met a lot of people in their mid-to-late-20s who blow into town to do something vaguely entrepreneurial, only to often end up going back to wherever they came from because they never had the capital, planning, or self-discipline necessary to give themselves much of a runway to actually scale a business into a success. Partying it up and “networking” with people who are just as clueless isn’t helpful.
They become complacent, have fun, and eventually realize that there’s an end to that road – even here in Chiang Mai.
That’s because they lost the external motivation that propelled them to come here in the first place. And they never made up for that with enough (or any) internal motivation.
On the other end of the spectrum, you have much older expat retirees who probably have enough money (via fixed income or other sources) to indefinitely live an easy, relaxed lifestyle. Not in the lap of luxury. But easy.
They can sleep in late and eat Western food during the day, then stay out late at night and have a ball with the nightlife.
But many of them – at least the ones I’ve run across – don’t seem to be all that happy. They just sit around, drink, and complain. They’re out of shape – physically and mentally. And they don’t have much of anything interesting to talk about.
To me, it’s like they’ve lost all touch with reality. There’s no meaning or purpose in their lives. They’re just floating in this weird space of apathy. That’s not truthfully what leads to long-term happiness and growth as a human being. They’re simply not fulfilled as people.
I’ve found the low COL in Chiang Mai to be wonderful, but only because I basically took a structured, purposeful, and driven life that I had already designed in the US, then installed it into a much cheaper and more laid-back locale. This allowed me to maximize the low cost of living while simultaneously experiencing that higher quality of life I mentioned earlier.
I already had a life figured out for myself, which is much more difficult (and valuable) than just figuring out the money.
But if you come here thinking Chiang Mai will “make a life for you” because you have a few bucks to last a while in a cheap place, you’ll be disappointed.
The problem, for me, is that a lot of people don’t come here with a good long-term plan. And that creates a sense of ephemerality because it ends up being a very transient city when looking at the younger demographics (the people I’d naturally be more inclined to spend time around).
Many digital nomads I’ve met are more nomad than digital (when it should probably be the opposite), which means they bounce around the region for a while on savings or whatever until they go back home.
And then there are the young, self-righteous backpackers who like to come here and, for example, aggressively extol the health virtues of veganism while simultaneously smoking a pack of cigarettes (true story!), before they go somewhere else (Bali or Pai) and repeat the same process.
Alternative lifestyles are cool. I’m living one. But people who come here, living said lifestyles, tend to be overly aggressive with pushing their agendas. That’s uncool. It’s a very “crunchy” place, if that makes sense.
As such, I don’t find it particularly easy to build long-term friendships here (although it’s very easy to meet people and make short-term friends). This is especially true if we’re talking friendships with like-minded peers who are at a similar level of development across the many aspects of life.
It’s not a huge deal, though. I still have more friends here than I ever did in the US, which is crazy when you line up how long I’ve lived here relative to the States. There are definitely some really unique and amazing people that come to the city to explore and create. And it’s been fantastic to meet these people and share perspectives.
Let’s end on a high note here. I feel like this article was a bit of a bummer.
This is certainly not reflective of who I am or how I feel living here. I just want to keep it real for you guys.
Truth be told, Chiang Mai is a wonderful place to live. I can honestly say that I’ve enjoyed the last 15 months here more than any other period of my life.
It sometimes feels like it’s not real. It’s like it can’t possibly be happening to this poor kid from Detroit. Going from living on welfare in a crack house in Detroit to financially independent and retired early in Thailand leaves me shaking my head in disbelief sometimes.
It’s that good!
However, it’s not a perfect place with absolutely no drawbacks whatsoever.
People aren’t perfect. Situations aren’t perfect. Relationships aren’t perfect. Businesses aren’t perfect. This world isn’t perfect. Nothing will ever be perfect.
It’s with that in mind that I wanted to share a few cons that I’ve been able to experience since moving here.
Also, keep in mind that I listed drawbacks that are specific to Chiang Mai. Dealing with, say, visa issues or cultural differences will be something to think about for any expat living just about anywhere. And the benefits of living here still vastly outweigh the drawbacks.
I struggled a bit with coming up with list, to be honest. If this were almost anywhere else in the world, I don’t think I would have struggled as much with coming up with a list of undesirable aspects. But that’s how it is here. It’s a great place to live life and retire early (or retire at all) – if you come here with the right mindset.
What do you think? Have you ever been here? Think these are fair drawbacks? What are some drawbacks of where you live?
Thanks for reading.
Image courtesy of: Serge Bertasius Photography at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
P.S. If you’re interested in becoming FIRE, which could allow you to live almost anywhere and experience your own benefits and drawbacks, check out some phenomenal resources that I personally used on my way to becoming financially free at 33!