Overlooking Chiang Mai at Night
If retiring abroad is your plan and you think Thailand suits your tastes, it’s important to understand what you’re giving up and what you’re gaining before you make plans to move.
I have first hand knowledge of Chiang Mai after many visits over the last few years and my goal with this article is to give you a realistic overview of retirement in Chiang Mai, Thailand. If you want to learn about Chiang Mai retirement and learn the pros and cons, read on.
Thailand Retirement Visa
In a previous post, we covered the step-by-step process of acquiring a Thailand Retirement Visa.
To recap this process briefly, here are the basic requirements to get a Thai retirement visa.
- You must be 50 years of age or older.
- You must have a passport with at least 18 months remaining until expiration.
- You must be able to prove that you have 800,000 baht (approximately 26,278 USD) in a Thai bank account.
- You must prove you earn 60,000 baht (approximately 1,970 USD) per month from a pension or other recurring source of income, or a combination of the two.
- You also must pay a small fee of 1,900 baht for the visa.
My Thoughts on the City and Chiang Mai Retirement
Once you have your Thailand Retirement Visa and you’re ready to make your move to Thailand to retire, Chiang Mai is definitely a city you should explore. I always recommend more than one sightseeing and reconnaissance trip. Here’s a hotel in Chiang Mai on the Ping River my family and I have enjoyed in the past.
Chiang Mai is full of businesses, social clubs, and all sorts of leisure activities created for (and often by) retired expats. It’s a city with something for every type of retiree.
Retirement in Chiang Mai comes with a wealth of options in terms of lifestyle and activities. It’s possible to retire in Chiang Mai on only $1000 a month and live a nice lifestyle, but if there’s more in your budget, there’s always more to see and do in Chiang Mai, and it can make for the kind of fantasy retirement you’ve always dreamed about.
There are some problems though.The air quality can be a real problem certain times of the year albeit with a potential solution, and old timers complain it’s lost it’s charm (see my view below).
The reality is that since my first visit in 2015, the sleepy city has grown and modernized dramatically. New areas for housing for retirees, families and even singles exist West and South of the city. And they are incredibly affordable, while being close to new western-style shopping malls and super-groceries.
The University of Chiang Mai offers a lot for people who may want to learn Thai culture. There are several decent and affordable private schools for folks with kids in the city proper.
The new outer ring around the city is developing great amenities and is dirt cheap, yet close enough to zoom into the city.
Speaking of affordability, Chiang Mai comes in as a big discount to Bangkok and Phuket. Chiang Mai is a city that is still priced for Thais and not for tourists like Bangkok and Phuket. Transportation is easy and cheap by tuk tuk and Uber.
Many of the long time residents lament the rapid development of Chiang Mai over that 6 or 7 years, saying that it’s lost it’s charm or over-crowded.
In my opinion, the modern development of western, quality housing options, western style shopping centers, and restaurants catering to expats is a huge positive development. Th is puts Chiang Mai in a category more closely comparable to many places in Mexico, albeit at a cheaper price.
All of Thailand is experiencing incredible levels of tourism, as Thailand attracts over 32MM tourists every year. The Chinese represent about 27% and over 1MM Americans also visit Thailand. There’s a good reason!
The air quality during “Burning Season”—February to April is horrible. The Thai government is run by the Military and they have vowed to fix this. Many Westerners use this time to travel elsewhere in Thailand or Asia. If you have asthma or are compromised by other breathing issues, a Chaing Mai Retirement may not be for you..
Chiang Mai is 41% cheaper than Bangkok and substantially cheaper than the dollarized Phuket (>10%).
Chiang Mai is charming, with architectural relics mixed in alongside many modern buildings.
Chiang Mai has a thriving digital nomad community of younger Americans working predominantly on tech projects.
This drives cool restaurant and coffee shop options.
The metropolitan area is sizable and estimated to be close to 1MM people, but the city proper is only about 200,000 (7th largest in Thailand).
Best Place to Live in Chiang Mai
Though the name “Chiang Mai” translates to “New City”, the city is actually over 700 years old and is an important part of the history of Thailand. Located in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai contains several golf courses, thousands of restaurants, hundreds of spas, and a Thai massage is always within walking distance. Home to over 300 operational temples, for all its years of history, Chiang Mai is nonetheless a very modern city full of shopping malls and almost any form of recreation you could want. It’s also small enough to easily drive, ride through on a motorcycle, or travel in one of the famous Tuk Tuks.
Chiang Mai is the most populous and important city in its region, with around a million people in its metropolitan area. The “old city” in the walled center of town, has a population of about 130,000. Rough estimates for the number of expats living in Chiang Mai are in the neighborhood of 40,000. Chiang Mai is a great tourist center full of well known shopping areas and activities, and it’s also home to many hidden gems you’ll discover with the help of fellow retirees and expats.
Living Expenses in Thailand
The Chiang Mai cost of living is one of the major factors drawing retirees and expats to Chiang Mai. Numbeo’s cost of living analysis, which compares costs of living in various cities around the world, lists the cost of living in Chiang Mai is 16,429 baht (about $550 USD) per month, plus rent.
If you like to compare your city or any other city to Chiang Mai click here and do your own Numbeo Comparison.
An inexpensive restaurant is 50 baht ($1.63 USD) and a three-course meal for two at a mid-range restaurant is 525 baht ($17.16 USD).
Western food is more expensive than Thai food, but still tends to be much cheaper than is typical in your home country. You’ll also find that eating out for a couple is usually cheaper than cooking your own meals at home.
If you’d like to give Chiang Mai a try on a long-term basis, you can stay in a fully serviced hotel/apartment for $500 USD per month.
Purchasing a condo comes with rules. Foreigners are not allowed to own land although they can purchase a condo as long as 51% of the building is Thai owned. You can also do a 30 year leasehold on a property.
Renting a motorbike is also fairly cheap. You can get a low-quality bike (usually an older 100cc manual motorcycle) for about $60 USD per month, but you’re probably better off spending $90-100 if you can afford it and getting a newer 125cc with a little more size and power.
The Expat Community
Chiang Mai has many expat social networking groups providing you with lots to do and Westerners have a Chiang Mai Expat Club. Joining the Expat Club requires a one-time membership payment of 1000 baht and makes for an open resource of many business specializing in retirees and expats, not to mention fantastic meals put on at social events. It’s a valuable resource, connecting you with like-minded people who have been where you are now and are happy to share the knowledge they’ve accumulated in their time in Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai Retirement Offers Low Cost Healthcare
Thailand is well-known as a medical vacation location. The country’s medical treatment is excellent and costs a fraction of what it does in most western countries. Medical treatment, dental treatment, and cosmetic surgery are all very affordable, as is the health insurance for those living in Chiang Mai full time.
Here are some general health care costs:
- Dental cleaning with X-rays is about 1400 baht
- Medical check-ups are around 200 baht and may hospitals off full body check ups with x-rays, ultrasounds and age-based bloodwork and a reduced cost several times per year.
- A premium health insurance policy with Bupa Blue Cross is around 20,000 baht per year.
- Costs for hospitalization in a private ward start in the neighborhood of 2000 baht per day.
- Many expensive medicines are reproduced either locally or from India and are significantly cheaper.
- You can also hire your own nurse or caregiver, whether for a short term or live-in position, for around 15,000 baht per month.
- Chiang Mai’s retirement communities are luxurious locations that provide, meals, accommodation, nurses, doctors, and in patient facilities, as well as social outings, all for about 60,000 baht per month.
Chiang Mai Retirement Living and Culture
Being located in the north of Thailand, Chiang Mai is influenced by the traditions of the Lanna and Hill Tribe people. Lanna heritage is all over the city, taking shape in language, architecture, clothing, art, food, music, and more. The local clothing, dyed cobalt blue or any array of other colors, is often worn by people around town. There is an impressive amount of artistry infused in the culture. Chiang Mai has been a center of the arts for some time, with areas like the Bor Sang umbrella-making village and the Baan Tawai wood carvers’ enclave.
No other part of Thailand is home to so many factories and even entire villages dedicated to the arts. There are workshops you can visit to learn about the production of silk or silver, and hand-crafted souvenirs are abundant.
Thailand is often referred to as the land of smiles, and nowhere is this more true than in Chiang Mai. Locals are friendly, honest, and helpful, and not just looking to get something out of the tourists. They are some of the friendliest people you’ll meet on your travels.
When you retire in Chiang Mai Thailand, the Winters are beautiful, with clear blue skies, low humidity, and temperatures around 30ºC during the days. When March rolls around, temperatures become a little warmer, but since Shiang Mai is near the mountains, it always tends to be a few degrees cooler than most cities in other parts of Thailand and Asia.
The rainy season begins in May and continues sometimes until October. During those months, rain tends to come once or twice a day for 30 minutes to an hour at a time, often coming as a downpour. You have about a half hour of warning ass the dark clouds start to form and when the wind picks up, you know it’s coming in about 10 minutes. The cool temperatures and refreshing breeze are often welcome as long as you’re in a place with cover. Aside from the daily hour or so of rain, the weather is usually clear and beautiful even during the rainy season. You’ll get some of the best photos of you’ve ever gotten during day trips in the tourist spots. Just plan on stopping for 30-60 minutes at a cafe to let the rain pass when it comes.
The Scenery in Chiang Mai
There are plenty of places in Chiang Mai for swimming or relaxing, but being located in the mountains in the north of Thailand, Chiang Mai is at its most impressive when exploring the outdoors. From old villages and rice fields to lush forests with elephants and monkeys. A short drive away from Chiang Mai, you enter into what feels like a completely different world with its lakes, caves, national parks, and temples. There’s lots to be seen and explored. Bring along your camera and take photos of some of the most breathtaking sights you’re ever likely to see.
The scenery ranges from the natural to the man-made, created over centuries by monks along the sides of the temples and villages. Chiang Mai is home to an enormous number of temples of all different shapes and sizes, from huge gold and silver temples to old ruins still in operation after centuries. If you are out in the early hours of the morning you can often see monks of all ages in orange and red clothing collecting elms along the side of the road. Monks are highly valued and respected in Chiang Mai.
Cultural heritage is highly valued in Chiang Mai, more so than in other major Thai cities. The city is relatively free from Western religion (though there are churches) with the vast majority of locals being proud Buddhists.
The Incredible Thai Food
Thai food is popular everywhere for a reason, and in Chiang Mai the cost of it is much, much cheaper than what you would pay in western countries. All around the city you can find markets and food stalls where you can sample local dishes for around $1 USD for a meal. You’ll find plenty of well-known favorites like green curry and pad Thai, but be sure to try Chiang Mai’s famous local specialty, the Khao Soi noodle dish, which is a Thai red curry with Indian curry powder mixed in.
Vegetarians are also very well catered to in Chiang Mai, as Thai people often go meatless in their meals for Buddhist events. And even if you’re not a fan of Thai food, or if you tire of it after a while, there are expats in Chiang Mai from all over the world – India, Greece, Italy – selling authentic food from their own countries at great prices made from fresh ingredients.
Coffee is also very popular in Chiang Mai, and of the hundreds upon hundreds of cafes, many have supply their house coffee using their own coffee farms. Chiang Mai coffee is often considered to be among the top 1% of best coffee in the world. It is organic, hand picked, wet processed, sun dried, and packaged with single source beans. Coffee shops usually provide WiFi and AC and you’re free to spend hours sipping coffee and enjoying conversation. They’ll also have prepackaged coffee for you to take home.
The Best Place to Retire in Thailand For You
As with any city where you’re considering retirement, whether or not a Chiang Mai retirement is right for you will come down to what you’re looking for specifically in a place to spend this new chapter of your life. It’s always highly recommended you go on holiday first and get a sense of how you feel about the culture and whether you’d like to spend more time there. Different places have something to offer for different people. Retirement in Thailand is popular but there’s reason Chiang Mai has become such a popular retirement destination, as it certainly has a lot to offer for a large number of retirees and expats.
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Ian Bond is a private banking senior executive with over three decades of experience in wealth and asset management with Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, and Citigroup. He has built major businesses on four continents.
Despite his professional responsibility for assets over $100B and revenues over $1B, after the 2008 crash Ian was personally going broke. Within five years he destroyed his debt, became an expat in 2014, and built multiple streams of income to fund his imminent retirement. Ian is also the founder of MyRetirementRehab.me created to help other executives and professionals rehabilitate their finances and make a prosperous, enduring retirement a reality.
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