The Big Differences. One of the first things a soon-to-be American Expat moving to Thailand needs to ask is, where should he live? Many chose the area south of Bangkok, which usually has beaches and lots of nightlife and plenty of other expats. For this report, however, I will consider the differences of living in the Big City v. the Big Village; Bangkok v. Chiang Mai.
My first Thai home was a one bedroom condo apartment in the Lad Phrao district of Bangkok, but later my wife and I sold the condo to move into our house in Chiang Mai. I am in a position to be able to compare life for an American expat in both places.
Bangkok (BKK) has a lot to offer. Several expats in BKK ask me why in the world I would want to live in the “fringes” of what’s
happening up in the North. Chiang Mai (CNX) may be the second largest city in Thailand (there is actually a little debate on this, since the CNX counts the population of the suburbs to get the total, and not all other cities do this. CNX may be the fourth largest or the third largest city in the country), but the feeling in CNX is that it is actually the “Biggest Village in Thailand”, since the amount of geography occupied by the city proper is actually quite small in comparison to other Thai cities.
On the positive side for BKK, the City is the Center of the Nation. It is also more worldly than CNX, with large diverse groups of peoples from all over the world. You can easily find Russians, Chinese, Brits, Peruvians, Norwegians, and any other possible group imaginable in BKK, and they bring with them restaurants and shops catering to that group. You will discover new places to buy things and eat everyday living in BKK. Also because it is the Center for Thailand, you will easily find specialty shops for everything possible. So if you have an unusual hobby or require unusual supplies for your job, you can always find them somewhere in BKK.
It is also easier and cheaper to travel outside of Thailand from BKK. You can hop on the skytrain right into Suvarnabhumi International Airport, and easily take a flight to anywhere in the world. It is cheaper to fly from BKK to Europe than to America, so holidays in that part of the world are easy to take. Some of the costs to fly to other parts of Asia from BKK are incredibly cheap with so many competing airlines. If you can catch the airline promotional sales, it is possible to go to Hong Kong, Bali, Viet Nam and many adventurous places for under a hundred dollars. Domestic flights go out of Subarnabhumi (pronounced, believe it or not, as Swan-a-poom, or shortened to Swan-a-poo) and the old airport, Don Muang Airport. There are a very large number of small airlines (many more than in the US) and they are very competitive in price and service. You can fly all over Thailand if you plan well for around fifty dollars.
BKK night skylineBKK skylineTransportation within BKK is also plentiful and cheap. To get around, you have the choice of the Sky Train, the Underground Train, AC Buses, non-AC Buses, air conditioned metered taxis, tuk-tuks, Samlor (cycle rickshaws), motorcycle taxis, and limousines or walking. You can get across BKK (about the size of Los Angeles) for as low of $2 or $3, In fact, I would say it is NOT a good idea to have your own transportation (car of motorcycle) in BKK, as it can lead to an early death.
Nightlife in BKK is amazing (in big contrast to CNX). There is entertainment for every taste, and it is much easier for a guy and girl (or any other combination) in BKK to meet each other and become a couple (temporary or permanent).
All services, like dental or medical or acupuncture or travel agencies or accountants or lawyers or anything else are more plentiful in BKK than anywhere else in Thailand. Think of the most unique service possible, and for sure BKK has it.
If you love a City with huge shopping malls, enormous weekend markets, shows, theater, and world-class cinemas, and much more, then BKK fits the bill. CNX still has some of these things, but on a smaller-scale. But CNX also has two incredible night markets, Muay Thai kickboxing events, a couple of good shopping malls, many lovely cafes and restaurants, and very decent art galleries with lots of relaxed coffee houses.
On the negative side, BKK also has noise. Lots of it. Early in the morning and late at night. Traffic is bad always, and there are few restrictions on noise pollution, air pollution and the occasional flood. Every morning in my BKK condo I was wakened by the vegetable seller on the street (and Iwas 8 floors up) screaming in his electric megaphone about the specials on his cart (in Thai language, of course). BKK is total chaos, but many young people don’t mind the chaos, and in fact welcomes it. In my own personal unscientific poll of my BKK friends and acquaintances, there is much more likelihood of serious illness like cancer in BKK than in other places, and I think air pollution plays a major role in that.
Living in BKK is also more expensive than living in CNX. Food in the markets and restaurants seem to be about 25% more in BKK, and I believe it is because the area around CNX is farm country, loaded with small family farms that keep prices down.
Rental rate for apartments in BKK are also higher than in CNX. In BKK, you will get smaller units and pay 25% more than in CNX or more. The same ratio applies to purchasing a house or condo as well.
In BKK, there are city parks, but they are crowded and there is rubbish everywhere. When some Thai people are finished eating some fast food in the park, their wrappers and plastic spoons are tossed, and it shows. In CNX, you drive 10 minutes outside of the city, and you could be on a jungle covered hilltop with a great view and it is pristine in a natural way
In Chiang Mai, life is much slower than in BKK. It is laid back in CNX, but the yang to that ying is that it is also more difficult in CNX to find motivated, ambitious people full of energy to get things done. The social life in CNX is limited, with few entertainment venues offered. The Adult Nightlife is almost non-existent compared to the Big City (that could be a positive or a negative, depending on your point of view). However, Chiang Mai has great restaurants of almost any flavor, but for sure not as many as in BKK.
Chiang Mai is a “20 minute city”, meaning you can get anywhere in town in 20 minutes or less. No massive traffic jams that leave you stuck in one place for an hour or so, which is fairly commonplace in BKK, but down in the tourist area of central CNX, it can still get congested with traffic.
Chiang Mai is a university town, so there are loads of students all over town. To me, it is very positive to live in a town loaded with attractive young college girls. There is less diversity in the population in CNX. Most everyone is Thai, with the small ribbon of farang (Western foreigners) mixed in all over the City. Not so many mixes of people from the far corners of the Earth as in BKK.
Chiang Mai, especially down in the central part of the city, is quite “touristy”, it is easier to get out into the country-side to experience the “real Thailand”. After an hour of driving out of CNX, you can find yourself up in the mountains between remote villages with amazing hill tribe cultures and panoramic views. You can’t do that very easily in BKK.
While CNX has a nice little international airport, it is difficult to travel to most places outside of the country without going through BKK and changing planes. It will take a bit longer and cost a bit more to travel almost anywhere by air.
If you need to find a job, BKK is much better than CNX in every industry, including teaching. In BKK, you will be paid more, and there are many more opportunities.
Weather-wise, Chiang Mai is more pleasant during more of the year. From October through February, Chiang Mai can actually be cool and often AC is not needed. In BKK, it is hot all year long, and summers in BKK can become quite sticky, much more so than in CNX.
Hands down, in Chiang Mai the pace of life is slower, relaxed, the people are even friendlier and nothing seems too urgent here. Bangkok, on the other hand, is like every capital city in the world that is frenetic, crazy, crowded and rushed.
Making the decision between Bangkok or Chiang Mai depends a lot on a person’s character, and what they are looking for in life. For me, Chiang Mai fits the bill, but I can understand why others may choose Bangkok.