Cost of living Thailand: Living in Chiang Mai for $505 a month

In 2010 I arrived in Chiang Mai to celebrate Christmas with some fellow bloggers and online business friends. I thought it was going to be a two week visit, but I was then invited to attend a coffee tour which which brought me back the following month. Each time I came back I thought I was leaving only to end up coming back again. It’s been that sort of place for me. Since then I have been using Chiang Mai as a home base to work while I am not travelling. It’s a pretty easy-going for a city of its size, and it doesn’t get the volume of visitors that you see in the south. And as you will soon see, the cost of living is among the lowest in Southeast Asia.

Elephants and Wat - Chiang Mai

Here is my cost of living for Chiang Mai in April 2012, converted into USD.

Rent $178
Food – eating out $131
Groceries $56
Coffee $67
Transport $3
Massage $26
Foot massage $12
Laundry $9
Sundries $23



A grand total of $505USD for 30 days. That beats my previous one month living expense of $850 for a month in Mexico. I was taking note of what I spent every day, but I wasn’t keeping a running tally. I ate well and I wasn’t conscious of saving money. If I had of known how close I was to $500 I could have easily gone under that. The low cost of living is a big factor for why Chiang Mai is popular with digital nomads.


Studio apartment - Chiang Mai
[Studio apartment – Chiang Mai]

For my month I rented a new studio apartment which had a fridge but no kitchenette. No problem for me as I never cook at home, and I am certainly not about to start in a land with such an abundance of great street food. It came with a fridge though so I had breakfast every day at home. I rented the apartment for three months so my friend Jodi took it over for the other two. The monthly cost shown here includes internet and approximate water and electricity charges which was billed at the end of the month.

Of course there are plenty of rentals in Chiang Mai that come with a kitchen. See the list of links below of others who have rented here.

Like any other place that you are looking to move to, I would book a hotel/guesthouse for the first few nights and look around when you are there. You can get a better idea of the property and may be able to find a better deal direct than on an agents site. To book a cheap hotel or guesthouse I use Agoda.

Also see my guide on where to stay in Chiang Mai before booking.

Food – Eating Out

Khao soi
[$1 lunch – Khao soi, a specialty of Northern Thailand.]

No kitchen, no problem in Thailand. There are so many good food options here that leaves you spoilt for choice. I eat Thai food most of the time, which is by far the cheapest (and yummiest) option, but there are plenty of farang eateries available as well, including some half decent Mexican places.

Curries at night market
[curry and rice around $1.20]

mangos and mangosteens
[Fresh fruit everywhere – mangos and mangosteens (approx $1 a kilo)]


Cafe latte - Chiang Mai
[A real coffee – no nescafe crap here]

One of the big attractions of Chiang Mai for me is the amount of cafes here. I haven’t seen a city in Asia that has so many cafes that serve real coffee. Most of the cafes have free wifi as well, so I always go to at least one a day to work in for a while. I made a list of 30 cafes I visited in 30 days to give an idea of the cafe quality.

Coffee is my “vice expense” and I have put this separate from food. I don’t drink or smoke so that is a factor you will need to consider in this cost of living breakdown.

The coffee expense also forms a big part of my social life here. Chiang Mai is something of a digital nomad hub and there are always people either based here for a few months or passing through. Meeting up in cafes is a great place to swap business ideas and travel tales.


Another expense I wanted to list separately just because it is something I do twice a week. A group of us meet for dinner at the sunday night market, where foot massages are available for 60Baht/120Baht for 30m/1hour (that’s $2 to $4).

Sunday night foot massage
[Sunday night foot massage with Catherine and Shannon.]

Thai massages are about 150 baht ($5) while an oil massage is around 200 baht ($6.66) an hour.

I’ve included transport just to highlight that Chiang Mai is a walkable city so my transport costs were low. If you live further out of the old city you can get a bigger place but you will need a motorbike, which runs at about $150 a month. The local bus is a pickup truck called a Songthaew, and a ride to anywhere in the city is 20 baht (about 66 cents.)

Sunday night market - Chiang Mai
[Sunday night market]

The next city

I have been coming and going from here often over the couple of years, so next up I will be trying out some other cities in the region for one month at a time living. My next stop is Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), so look out for that cost of living report.

Other Chiang Mai cost of living break downs

As I mentioned there have been plenty of other bloggers pass through here who have also kept track of their cost of living, including: – Cost of Living Breakdown in Thailand – Cost of Living in Chiang Mai, Thailand – The Cost of Living Luxuriously in Chiang Mai – The Cost of Living in Chiang Mai for Our Family of Three – Living in Chiang Mai, Thailand – Cost of Living • Chiang Mai – The Cost of Living in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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  1. Should be able to get a motorbike for under 1/2 that.

  2. I envy your food bill.

    I’m spending about $400/mo on food here. Probably has something to do with the kilo of steak that I eat everyday, lol.

    But hey, it beats the $1,000/mo i was spending on food in the US.

    If anybody is curious, grass-fed steak is only $4/lb in Chiang Mai :0

  3. This is such a good post!!! I think often about how much I could live off in Thailand. I love that you’ve included massages haha. And it’s nice to know they have good coffee in Chiang Mai. Maybe that’s why all the expats go there. I see you from Melbourne. I only lived there for three months but it’s ruined me for coffee for the rest of my life. The coffee is amazing there. I used to be happy with coffee almost anywhere, not anymore.

    • Thanks Bobbi. I have to say that coming from Melbourne has made me a something of a coffee snob. I was back there last month and it the cafe scene just gets better. Unfortunately the wifi availability is still terrible in Australia.

  4. Thailand is definitely calling us back. The cost is certainly a draw, but cheap is nothing without great food and culture. That is where Thailand really shines!

    Great post! Hoping our paths cross again soon.

  5. Hi James, great post! We just booked a 6 week trip to Thailand and Burma for March. It’s the longest we’ve ever been away (we aren’t interested in the perma-nomad thing) but the cost is a draw, we figure we can’t afford NOT to spend some time there. If we do come to Chiang Mai, do you have any recommendation on a place to stay that does rentals by the week?

    • Hi Cassie, yes the perma-nomad life is not for everyone! For a weekly rental I would recommend staying at a guesthouse. There are lots of them in the Old City and are the among the best value in Thailand.

  6. Nice! You spent a TON on coffee compared with everything else! I was in Chiang Mia recently and spending very little, but then went to Pai and my costs dropped about in half! I could deal with those kinds of prices for a while I think. Looking forward to hearing about Saigon!

  7. Steve Wyman says


    Nice write up. I also love coffee and its a major expense thats justified 🙂 IMHO..

    Does your internet come with the room rate or extra? And is it low quality WI-FI? Ive heard there is pretty darn fast access available in chang mai?

    • Thanks Steve. I figure I don’t have a beer budget so I’m happy to have a proper coffee budget.

      As for the wifi it was not included in my rent, but I have included it in the total cost of my rent, along with the electricity and water. Some places will bundle it together with the rent. Either way it is cheap. The wifi is good in Chiang Mai as well.

  8. Cool post,

    I think I recognise varada place and ristr8tto coffee from my time in Chiang Mai

    • Yes that was Varada Place and you have a good eye there for spotting the Ristr8tto coffee!

      • Hello James! My name is Hans and I was just reading your article on Chiang Mai, great article by the way! I will be visiting in a little over a week from now among other areas to choose a place to vacation for the next 6-12 months. I have some questions if it would be possible to shoot me an e-mail I can be contacted at hope to hear from you soon

  9. Just more great examples of why I really want to check out Thailand for a while. Thanks for the breakdown!

  10. Holy cow $505/month is affordable! I knew Thailand was easy on the wallet but that’s better than I would’ve expected. And I like that you listed coffee as a separate expense since I’d probably be doing the same thing. 🙂

    • Thanks Kim. Chiang Mai is probably the best value in Thailand for big cities. I know not everyone is a big coffee drinker so I put that in a class of its own 🙂

  11. Yes that was Varada Place and you have a good eye there for spotting the Ristr8tto coffee!

  12. Michele Hendricks says

    Good post! I also have enjoyed the low cost life style in Chiang Mai. For Americans who have very high health care costs, another plus to Chiang Mai is medical and dental care which is very high quality and very reasonable cost. I have combined my trips with doing some dental care at the Grace Clinic in Chiang Mai. The hospital there is also very medical tourist friendly. My husband and I had our routine colonoscopys there. It cost us less then it would of in the USA, using our insurance. We were more then satisfied. When we showed up at the hospital and told them what we wanted they made the arrangements in less then an hour, we were assigned a registered nurse who guided us through the process. We were examined by a doctor about 20 minutes after we arrived and our procedure was scheduled for he next day. It went well. The money that I have saved doing these things in Thailand offset the cost of the trip.

  13. Christine Krieg says

    I too have spent considerable time in Chiang Mai and agree: it is the best small city I have found so far in terms of value. My total was more around $650. That’s partly because I like to swim and always stay at the Eco Resort (just under $10/day in a “shared” room, including buffet breakfast) since they have a 1/2 size Olympic pool. ‘Cause it’s outside the city center (nr the British Consulate in fact) I rented a motorbike the last time, which did add $130 to my monthly bill. I probably could have gotten one for less, but I didn’t shop around. The choices, variety and quality in both street food and small restaurants is truly phenomenal. I rarely spent more than 60 to 90 baht on a main meal. I love to cook and I never missed not having a kitchen. However, if you eat at restaurants targeting Western travelers your food bill will be much higher.

    I also had dental work done there. Two years ago I needed two crowns. Cost was $250 total!! It would have easily cost me $2000-$3000 in San Francisco. Last time all I needed was a checkup and teeth cleaning. $20.

  14. Ha! I’m about to jump on an overnight sleeper train from Lopburi to Chiang Mai. Can’t WAIT for some real coffee! Thanks for this!

  15. hey james,
    again from me also, a great article. and fotos too! i have been living in nicaragua the last 3-4 years as i am on a disability pension and i cannot live in canada on $800/month. i have grown tired/restless with much of the culture and 3rd world rural living here. my son and friend live half the year in thailand and my plan is to arrive in chiang mai with the intention of staying. my question is, can i live indefinitely as a perpetual tourist? in nica, you just renew your visa every three months and then you must leave for 4 hours every 6 months into costa rica, or another country. is it possible to do the same in thailand? thanks for taking the time to share your journey and giving us such a wonderful reference!

  16. Hello Friends,
    I’m thinking of making the move by myself in September. Do you think a single woman coming to Chiang Mai alone can manage? Money is not an issue. I have a graduate degree do you think I will get a job teaching English.

    If you were me, what would be the first thing you do when you got off the plane? I’m only bringing 2 suitcases.


    Any moral support would be greatly appreciated!!!

    • Can you recommend a safe but inexpensive place in Chiang Mai to stay for 1 month for a 18 year old American male who only speaks English?
      Thank you!!!

    • Yes, you should have no problem finding employment as a teacher. However, some of the positions in CM will not be at well paid….but female teachers are popular, especially at kindergartens and with a degree you should have no problems obtaining a work permit. I am not a woman so I can’t comment on whether you can manage but I can’t see why not.

  17. James would all this information (mostly on the prices) be just as accurate in today’s prices yeah. Just curious as I really liked your budget, and converting your $505 dollars to UK pounds works out at around just £10 a day you were living on, and to think your getting your nice studio which you said has a fridge and internet and your water and electricity of all this is amazing, not to mention all the food costs which are included also.

    Would you mind sharing what the exact area location was in Chiang Mai where you found this studio, as I would love to do a little travelling for a month at a time, and if I could get buy comfortably on £10 a day or so that would be great.

    Also I just though, was your studio such a good price because you mentioned something about having it for 3 months. Would this have been much more expensive had you taken it for a shorter stay?

    • Hi Shaun,

      I would say there has been inflation since, as there is everywhere, but my friends in CM still report it being a cheap destination. I was off Huay Kaew Rd, which is fairly central. I had a friend living in a cheaper place further out, near the train station. The best thing to do is to just get here and look around. Always cheaper on the ground over looking at prices online. It’s hard to comprehend the cost of living coming from the UK/Oz.

      Good luck!

  18. I came here March 15 1994.. left 3 times.. only to come back 3 more times. Lived in homes estates not apartments.
    Now, I live in a most “hobbit” styled home in Saraphi near NanThong Market. About 16 kms away. I have 4 bikes and 4 cars all custom made. I bred the Thai Ridgeback Dog for almost 20 years. My house sits on a 2 rai 3200 sq. meters or the size of a football field 100 x 50 meters. For a mere 3500 baht a month or $116 a month. My food bill?? No clue as my 33 year old thai GF does all that.. She shops and i eat it.. better than any Thai eating shop. maybe $200 a month. My dog food bill is $700 a month feeding 50 dogs. My fuel bill maybe $100 a month and the rest maybe another $100 to $200 for fun stuff. all I know is I live okay here.. My friends are all multi-millionaires and they all live lives one could only dream of here..

  19. Well, it’s been eleven months since my first visit to Thailand and Chiang Mai and I just arrived in Bangkok again this morning, intent on staying either in Chiang Mai or the bucolic Pai for about three months. After four months exploring western Europe I’m looking forward to just chilling out not only inexpensively but gastronomically … the high and heavy amounts of bread, cheese, and meat in Ireland, Scotland, England, Wales, Spain and France left me wanting nothing but Thai veggies for at least the next month!

  20. After I originally commented I appear to have clicked on the -Notify me
    when new comments are added- checkbox and now whenever a comment is added I get 4
    emails with the same comment. Perhaps there is a means you can remove me
    from that service? Thanks!

  21. Many thanks for providing this information.


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