chiang mai

[Preface: 4 years ago I wrote about bootstrapping startups from Vietnam and in recent years we've seen waves of "digital nomads" settling down in Vietnam. The situation for startups in particular in Vietnam has developed rapidly since but it's still a good base for "bootstrappers". The following is one long-term Vietnam expat's view on another trendy digital nomad hotspot.]

Have you heard? Chiang Mai, a city in the north of Thailand, is a top destination for digital nomads. What's a digital nomad? It's those people you see sitting in cafes all day with MacBooks. There are thousands of them in Saigon, at thousands of cafes throughout the city, but mostly around District 1.

When you've been hanging around Bangkok or Saigon, you'll find that Chiang Mai is much quieter. Peaceful. The honking has stopped, and you have space. There's a lot less going on here. And all the travel agencies are encouraging you to trek outside the city where there's even less. This is a small provincial outpost, not a cosmopolitan regional economic hub. But it draws in a ton of tourists.

The heart of the city is the square-shaped Old City, surrounded by a moat, which is still filled with standing water. This area is full of guesthouses and hotels and places for backpackers and tourists to hang out and get their backs rubbed. There are a number of streets in Chiang Mai which could be called "massage districts" due to almost every shop being a massage shop - 100 baht for 30 minutes, 200 baht for an hour. Massage may be the city's main industry. The city as a whole shuts down early, including the Old City. It's the complete opposite of Bangkok's Khaosan Road. But the masseuses stay open until the last bars close. Walking Street is full of white people laying in chairs on the sidewalk getting rubbed down by Thai people until midnight.

Contrast this with Saigon. Saigon is the kind of city that stays up late. There's always someplace to go eat and drink that's open. It's loud and noisy. You can get your massages here too but the masseuses will always be young women, not the aunties (or grannies or sometimes even male masseurs) who pull your limbs in Chiang Mai. So Chiang Mai is good for saving money by not going out, and maybe not dating local women.

Cafes with wifi, air conditioning, power outlets. And coffee. This is the natural habitat of the digital nomad. Chiang Mai's cafes are clustered in the Nimmanhemin / Nimmanheminda neighborhood outside of the Old City. This is a trendy area with shopping and trendy eateries as well as a handful of cafes. It's not a big neighborhood, but it's outside of the tourist circuit. Chiang Mai has a more artsy feel to it per capita / square meter compared to Vietnamese cities, and this street is a mix of hipster and yuppy, although such concepts just don't really apply in Southeast Asia.

Ploen Ruedee Night Market

But another great hangout spot (for white people) in CM with a similar creative-consumption vibe is Ploen Ruedee Night Market, "international food park", by the night market / bazaar. But it and the whole area are closed / dead on Sundays.

I've gotten used to cafes in Saigon having a certain standard of size to accommodate lots of customers, availability of power outlets, free iced tea, and fuss-free wifi. And there are more cafes in Saigon which fit this bill than any other city in Southeast Asia. For people settling in Chiang Mai's Nimmanhemin neighborhood and seeking cafes, it's not hard to find one. But they will be smaller and easily already full, or won't have any power outlets (this is common), or the wifi will be limited. Saigon has more quantity and variety when it comes to cafe styles.

Nimmanhemin cafes

Internet speeds in Chiang Mai can be decent. But a lot of the wireless networks have problems - being oversubscribed, being owned by telecom providers and requiring a subscription from them, being free to guests but only for an hour or two, and you'll only be able to connect to wifi with one device instead of both your laptop and your phone, etc. As cutthroat as Vietnamese businesses are, Saigon wifi providers aren't sophisticated enough to make you pay to access them, ever. A lot of Chiang Mai wifi networks are open as in unencrypted, whereas almost all wifi in Saigon will use WPA, just no login. As a consumer, you don't want to access wifi networks which are open but require logging in with an account tied to your passport or phone number.

Punspace coworking in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai has a few coworking spaces. For digital nomad noobs and gurus alike. Here you'll find community. Chiang Mai has a small fraction of the population of Bangkok or Saigon. If you "nomad" here, your community will be people just like you, not local people. While Vietnam and Saigon in particular has a community and ecosystem of internet / technology professionals who are not nomads, Chiang Mai does not. Saigon has "real" expats, people sent there by multinational corporations to work there, as well as all the smaller companies who still need or desire to hire foreigners (and not just for teaching English). Saigon is economically diverse, providing both access to a workforce with skills which a business may need, as well as being a market for selling services to. If you are developing products and need developers or marketers you can hire from the millions of young people working in Ho Chi Minh City, and their salary will be affordable to bootstrapping startups. You might even meet investors who fund your project in Saigon. Chiang Mai is more like a resort for internet forum dudes, some who are "killing it" and others who have no idea what they're doing but are keen on experience "Southeast Asia lite". Also, apparently working at Chiang Mai coworking spaces puts you at risk of being rounded up by the immigration police who have recently raided them looking for foreigners working on tourist visas.

There is no "digital nomad visa". And most of us aren't eligible for work visas. Visas are an issue, but the visa situation is better for Westerners in Vietnam than in Thailand. People are frequently denied visas to Thailand which is rare for visitors to Vietnam, although you need to arrange a tourist visa (3 months) before you arrive in Vietnam instead of upon arrival. There are agencies in Chiang Mai explicitly advertising "visa run" services, which you'll have to do after 30 days or so. They take you by bus to a bordering country - Myanmar or Laos. You might be refused at the border returning to Thailand for staying there too long. Thai immigration might deny people who've done multiple consecutive visa runs. Vietnam, despite its bureaucracies and unclear regulations, is much more certain and easier in this regard with no requirement to stay outside the country for months before being allowed back in.

But Thai people are pleasant and friendly. It's the Land of Smiles. Vietnamese people can learn a lot from Thais about attracting global tourists by providing better customer service instead of turning them off through rude behavior (which the Vietnamese person won't realize is rude) and through blatant overcharging or scams. I can't emphasize enough how nice and not rude Thai people are (generalizing). Thai people know how to queue.

Saigon is no nomad paradise. But it still manages to attract all kinds of people who stay for a long time. There are various communities and it's still really cheap. Living here is comfortable. Chiang Mai is also a comfortable place for new nomads. It's open to newbies, and is an "Asia-lite" compared to the edgier environment of Saigon. The digital nomad to local population ratio is quite high. There are more options for employment, entertainment / nightlife, dating, events, diaspora communities, etc. in Saigon, but more choice can also be confusing or distracting. Saigon can be more stressful whereas Chiang Mai promotes stress relief in its scenery, less hectic traffic, and massages. Chiang Mai can be a few degrees less hot compared to the hottest times in lower altitudes. Does "digital nomad" define who you are? Do you need to be a member of a digital nomad community above all other concerns? Then maybe Chiang Mai is sufficient. If you seek more, and want to be exposed to variety, insanity, and unexpected things daily, then start discovering Saigon.

Some other comments:
1. Chiang Mai is a clean city, but there are random poop smells. Saigon has random urine smells (where guys pee on the street).
2. Chiang Mai has an uncomfortable "burning season" from February til April when the air is full of smoke from fires in the surrounding farmland and people leave the city. The smoke in the air is so bad that there are days the planes can't fly in Chiang Mai causing the airport to shut down and stranding anyone trying to leave, so it's best to stay out for that season.
3. Thailand uses Thai script to write their language, a script similar to Khmer, but undecipherable to most foreigners. Signs are often not translated into English. Chiang Mai street names are hard to find. Vietnam is the opposite in that even Vietnamese names can be written and read (letter by letter) by foreigners and every building on every street has its address marked outside making it easy to always know where you are (this mostly works).
4. Chiang Mai is a small and compact city, but increasingly full of cars. The traffic isn't too bad yet but can still back up at intersections. There is basically no bus system or public transit, besides individual trucks. There are also few taxis (making it unreasonable to hail one on the street) but many tuk-tuks.

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