There’s no shortage of natural beauty in northern Thailand. There are dozens of rivers like the Mae Ping, which originates in the forest-clad Daen Lao mountain range and flows down through the temple-laden city of Chiang Mai. Waterfalls gush into fertile valleys like Mae Sa, where you’ll find elephant camps, orchid farms, and miles of lush jungle.
This is a peaceful—some might say serene—part of the country, where for very little money you can enjoy a high level of comfort. With just $1,200 a month a couple won’t want for much, and that includes rent. Many expats live here for even less. You’ll find some modest one-bedroom rentals for as little as $250 a month.
No need for air conditioning, either. Average temperatures in northern Thailand are lower than in the rest of the country. In the cool season, daytime temperatures in the 70s F are common. This cooler climate attracts many expats, as does the slow pace of life. Whether it’s a riverside village nestled in a wide, green valley, or a home at the end of a quiet lane, within city limits, you’ll find plenty of relaxation, peace, and tranquility.
One of the best and most popular expat destinations in this region is Chiang Mai. Less than a two-hour flight from Bangkok, it’s Thailand’s original mountain retreat, surrounded by some of the highest mountain ranges in the country. Considered the cultural heart of the north, Chiang Mai is chock-full of ancient temples and distinctive architecture.
It’s a bona fide city with plenty of amenities, including Western supermarkets and access to quality medical care. Yet Chiang Mai evokes small-town living, with its riverside cafés, abundance of quaint alleyways inside the Old City, and friendly smiles from the locals.
Chiang Mai is a shopper’s paradise, where you can find everything from silk to Thai handicrafts to custom-made teak furniture, all at extremely reasonable prices. After all these years, the Night Market is still a main attraction, though many prefer the Sunday Walking Street Market, near Tha Pae Gate, for the array of goods and the friendly vibes.
Local expats can choose from a variety of activities, including biking, book clubs, and tennis. There’s no shortage of golf courses in the area and you can see first-run Western movies at local cinemas for as little as $3. The streets of Chiang Mai’s Old City are lined with spas offering foot massages for less than $8. And for just $60 you can indulge in a two-hour spa treatment, including aromatherapy massage and a facial.
“Our living costs are much cheaper in Chiang Mai than in Portland,” says Kay Calavan, an American who has lived in Chiang Mai both full-and part-time for many years with her husband Mike. Even factoring in the round-trip air travel between Oregon and Thailand, Kay says they save money. And when in Thailand, the Calavans take advantage of quality, affordable medical and dental services. “When we have medical issues, we go to practitioners at Ram Hospital, which is close to our home,” says Kay.
Local expats continue to find great deals on rent, both inside the city and in the surrounding area. A year’s lease on a fully-furnished, one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment with mountain views, close to the popular Nimmanhaemin Road area, goes for $390 a month. For $500 monthly, you can rent a furnished, two-bedroom, two-bathroom house in hilly Mae Rim, outside town, with a large, modern kitchen and well-maintained yard.