Chiang Mai has been praised for many years as a budget friendly city where you can get a lot of value out of your dollar (or euro, yen…). On top it is foreigner-friendly and safe. Many travellers use Chiang Mai either as starting point for their travels around Southeast Asia, as a base for several weeks or months between their travels or simply to relax and enjoy the beauty of northern Thailand. Although Chiang Mai has many ways to dine and sleep cheap, there are also ways to unintentionally spend more money than you should or have to. Here is an overview of how to enjoy your time in Chiang Mai on a budget without sacrificing on comfort:
Opt for apartments over hostel/guest houses. The cheapest apartments are naturally not in the city centre, however, living far away results in higher transportation costs. Therefore the best place to live on a budget yet in close proximity to the Old Town, shopping facilities, markets, is near the Airport Plaza Mall (Mahidol Road or Thipanet Road). Serviced Apartment complexes such as Airport Resident, Airport Place or Airport Greenery offer monthly rates starting from 4000 THB (120 US$), some including Wifi, plus your electric/water consumption. The average fee for water should be not more than 200 THB per month for two people. Read the contract carefully – some apartments have a certain amount of water included in their price (e.g. 5 cubic metre) and charge high fees for any consumption above. The biggest money eater will be you’re AC, therefore use it only when needed and invest 400-500 THB for a fan.
Transportation in general is very affordable in Chiang Mai. Take a red Songthaew (converted pick up bus) to travel within the city. Rates are between 20-40 THB a bit higher for further places. Don’t take Tuktuks as you’ll end up paying ridiculous rates. If you have experience in driving, consider renting a motorbike. You can get a Hondo Scoopy or Honda Click for 2400 THB a month, fuel costs 32 THB / litre. Make sure to inspect the bike properly before renting. You’ll be asked to put down a deposit, which will be either your passport or a certain amount of money. Alternatively, more green and good for your health is renting a bicycle. Rates start from 1200 THB for a normal city bike.
Chiang Mai is one of these places where eating out can be cheaper or at least equally expensive to buying groceries and preparing meals on your own. There are plenty of markets all day around town selling so called 1-dollar meals (35 THB): Wonton noodles, rice soup, minced meat with rice and basil leave to name a few. Most of the times, you can even get free water along. Aside markets, choose to eat at mom n’ pop style restaurants. They may not be the fanciest ones, but they are cheap and most of all, the dishes have mostly the best taste.
Buy your fruits and vegetables on markets, it can’t get any cheaper. Bread can be found in almost all the supermarkets and 7-Elevens. Rimping Supermarkets reduce their bread prices by up to 30% during their last hour of opening. Don’t buy lots of water bottles: there are plenty of water filtration machines all over the town. Yes, it is safe to drink it. You can fill up bottles for as little as 1 THB for 1.5 litres as oppose to the supermarket where you pay 15 THB for 1.5 l bottles.
Many venues (bars, restaurants, etc.) have weekly promotions at certain times. It’s recommended to check their Facebook pages for up-to-date information. If you plan to watch a movie at the cinema, go on weekdays (Monday-Thursday) as the tickets are more expensive on Fridays and weekends).
You can find ATM’s throughout the city, however, if you withdraw money from a foreign account, most Thai banks will charge you fees from 150 THB. Therefore, consider taking a bit more cash than just depending on credit cards. The best money changing company is ‘Super Rich’ with a number of branches around major places such as Thapae Gate.
Most apartments come along with free Wifi or at least for an acceptable rate between 300-400 THB a month. There are many coffee shops around town where you can surf for free. If you’re working online and you need fast and reliable internet, go to C.A.M.P, at Maya Mall: aside that they’re open 24/7, you can surf for as low as 62 THB per month but you need to set up the package before at the AIS shop in the mall. Otherwise you can still surf, however you need to purchase anything above 50 THB (coffee/cake, etc.) in exchange for only 2 hours Wifi.
The same goes for your mobile – get a SIM from AIS (so it’s also easier to set up the package). Their connection is reliable plus the fees are very low.
Buy at your gifts at the Warorot Market in Chinatown. The items are mostly the same as on the night markets but way cheaper and sometimes even with better quality.