I’m retiring the ‘Day-to-Day’ series and ending with an updated look at my daily life here in Chiang Mai. You can always go back and take a look through all past posts – snapshots from expats’ daily lives all around the world, from New Orleans to New Zealand – here and thank you to all those who participated over the past couple years!
When I wrote the first ‘Day-to-Day’ post about living in Chiang Mai toward the end of 2013, I was living in an apartment with a Thai boyfriend, little work and no dog. Now I’m living in a house, with (thankfully) work, a dog and no boyfriend. Some things have changed a bit.
I liked my life here, but honestly, I was lost. I didn’t have much work and didn’t know how to make it freelancing, I loved living in Chiang Mai but also thought it would only be for a couple more months so didn’t fully commit to my life here, and was in a relationship that, between major differences in language, culture and upbringing, was a good learning experience, but very draining and frustrating.
After around 4.5 years being based here, I love it more than ever and am increasingly proud, and continually surprised, by the life I’ve managed to build up. It’s a good one.
My mornings in Chiang Mai usually start early between 6:00 – 7:00 a.m. Southeast Asia mornings are the best and need to be taken advantage of, especially in the hot season before the heat is able to take over the day. I’ll wake up and take the dog for a walk around where I live, come back and make coffee at home. I’ve never been big on mornings, but here I love them. (Seeing the sun every morning probably has a major play in that; it makes it so much easier to get out of bed than say, a dark, wet February morning in the Pacific Northwest.) I love walking while it’s still cool and seeing parents drive kids in their school uniforms to class on motorbikes. I love the small, pop-up moo bing (barbecued pork) and sticky rice stands that are always busy as people grab a quick breakfast, and I love the coffee. I’m spoiled for choice when it comes to coffee and cafes in Chiang Mai and try to always keep beans from my favorite roaster, Ponganes, to make a cup of drip.
Since I freelance and work with clients around the world, my daily schedule is always different. While I appreciate the flexibility – immensely – it’s also always a constant struggle to create some resemblance of a schedule and have clear ‘work’ and ‘play’ times. Usually I will stay at home getting stuff done as I get easily distracted if I go to a cafe, especially considering that Chiang Mai is a small place and I always seem to run into people I know. While most of the people I surround myself with work quite hard, the overall level of intense work and schedules in Chiang Mai is much lower than at home – here, enjoying yourself and your life tend to take priority over productivity and I constantly try to seek a balance. I never want to be back in that place I was in while working in Seattle where my 45+ hour a week job and 2-hour daily commute completely took over my life, but still feel twinges of guilt when I’m not super productive, put something off, or choose connecting with people in real life instead of working on my computer.
I really, really value the time I spend with those I care about here. Between so many people coming and going, you’re constantly meeting new people, however over the years I’ve found it sometimes difficult to meet people that I really, truly connect with and want to spend my time with rather than simply be friendly acquaintances since we happen to be in a close community at the same place, same time. At the moment, I feel incredibly fortunate for the people I have in my life here now – they’re all interesting, caring, understanding and a lot of fun. And they all love my dog which makes me even more thankful and fortunate, especially when I need to travel and have a number of willing dog sitters to choose from.
The way that Chiang Mai is set up, i.e. small and close together, I can also easily see all of my friends within a 15-minute drive – in fact 15 minutes is far. The closeness combined with the more laid-back lifestyle mean that I see people everyday. When I was in Seattle over the summer I saw one of my best friends once over a two-month period. Here I feel like I have a true community. And it’s so rich with variety in terms of people’s backgrounds, ages and experiences. In the past couple weeks I’ve met a number of new people while still spending one-on-one time with my close friends, been out in several groups where I was the only American and native English speaker, and had people over for dinner where I was the youngest and the oldest guest was 70.
That said, everyone is somehow connected and instead of seven degrees of separation it usually feels like there’s only one degree – barely. Usually I love this…until it comes to being single and trying to date, then it feels like everyone is in your business and you need to be extra careful where you step.
I’ve never had many material goods living in Chiang Mai, especially when I first moved here. I lived by myself and thought I’d only be staying for about six months, was on a low teacher’s salary and didn’t buy anything. I had two bowls, two plates, two spoons, etc. I didn’t get any furniture or decorations for where I lived. I bought a motorbike, but that was about it. It was a splurge to go to a cafe. Now I live in a two-story house with two bedrooms, two bathrooms, and way more than two sets of dishes and silverware. The downstairs of the house is funky – strange stone and concrete floors that always look dingy no matter how I try to clean them, low ceilings and a bathroom with a blue toilet and blue tub (WTF??). The kitchen is a decent size but has no shelves or cabinets. It’s cozy, but weird. Especially if you were to come straight from the U.S., used to big new houses, and land here, you may think it’s a little run down. And hard. Everything is hard, even the mattresses.
The upstairs is pretty magical though – all dark wood, spacious and with a ton of windows – it’s like my own Thai treehouse.
The owners of the house live right next to me, which could make for an awkward situation, but they’re wonderful. They have three Pomeranians (and my other neighbors have a Chihuahua), so together with my dog there’s a miniature petting zoo/small dog gang out in our gated driveway all the time. My dog gets spoiled with treats everyday and I get spoiled as well since they bring me snacks, sweets and even full meals at least twice a week. They definitely keep an eye on me – we all live so close and since everyone’s windows are always, always open you can hear and see pretty much everything going on – but it’s never felt invasive or judgmental, they just want to make sure I’m okay and taken care of, even driving me to the airport when I need a ride.
Though I own more here than I ever have before, it’s still nothing compared to everyone I know at home. I’ll go into people’s homes in America and feel completely overwhelmed by how comfortable and nice they are. My home here is plenty big enough for me, my dog and a roommate and we’re very comfortable with really everything we need, but it’s still very simple. There’s a hole in the ceiling that’s just been hastily boarded up, in my kitchen I have a small refrigerator, toaster oven and single burner attached to a propane tank. I only have one wine glass. My shower has an old water heater that works but is ugly to look at and, even if I tried to close all the windows in my house (which I never do), they would never be fully closed as they don’t match up entirely with the frame or screens are broken or….who knows. I don’t have a television or a sofa and when people come over they sit on a couple wood chairs, on Thai-style pillows or just on the floor. And that’s fairly normal.
I take private Thai lessons 3-4 times a week with two different teachers. When I first arrived in Thailand, I started taking lessons right away learning how to read and write, but I haven’t stuck with them my whole time here. Recently, I’ve had a renewed desire for improving my Thai skills. While I can read, understand quite a bit and can usually get by fine when it comes to meeting people and basic conversations, I have never really had Thai friends (acquaintances yes, friends no) so haven’t been surrounded by people having everyday conversations. I’m working on it.
The way I’ve eaten here has changed a lot over the past several years as well.
I don’t always eat the best here – street food tends to have a lot of oil, salt, sugar and MSG, and of course after a hot day a cold beer always sounds good…and it’s always a hot day here. But overall I feel healthier when I’m here. I used to eat street food almost exclusively – you can’t beat the price at 30-40 baht a plate – but now eat at a wider range of places as well as cook a little at home. I enjoy cooking but it’s actually cheaper to eat out, especially compared to just cooking for one. I eat more Western food now as well. Around the year/year and a half mark of living here I started to get a little tired of Thai food for every single meal. I adore Thai food and now find it completely normal to eat things like pork and sticky rice or noodle soup for breakfast, but I also adore bread and cheese and felt like I needed more of them in my life. In the past couple of years there have also been a number of new places opened in Chiang Mai that serve surprisingly good Western dishes especially for breakfast, brunch and lunch – way better than when I first got here – and I have taken advantage of them.
During my ‘free’ time, I still love exploring the city although I feel like between work and travel, I haven’t been doing much of it lately. I’m still completely happy wandering around aimlessly to see what I happen to stumble across – things change here so quickly, buildings and businesses open and close with no warning, and there is always some sort of festival going on. I’ll meet friends for brunch and go for motorbike rides out of town. (Riding my motorbike continues to be one of my all time favorite things about living in Thailand and I’m proud of the fact that not only can I drive and know what I’m doing, but can do it with a dog in the front basket, groceries hanging of the handlebars and something else balanced between my knees.) The city is great, but it’s really Chiang Mai’s more rural, jungly areas that are magical and every time I head even just 30 minutes out of the city, I feel like I’m in a different world.
In the evenings, like during my days, it just depends on how I spend my time. I always take the dog for another walk but we never get very far because she seems to make friends with everyone that we pass and normally I just stand there as she gets loved on by complete strangers – especially tuk tuk and songthaew drivers, for some reason. It always surprises me how these older men who have been napping in the back seat of their ride will jump up to cuddle this fluffy, princess-y dog. No one pays even the slightest attention to me.
After our stroll, sometimes I’ll stay home working, sometimes I’ll go listen to live music, like at the new Tha Pae East complex, and other times I’ll go to yoga or some other event or workshop.
I get massages at least once a week, sometimes at a small massage shop, sometimes at a spa and sometimes at a physical therapy place where they don’t speak English or do the set series of Thai massage positions, but can fix whatever is wrong with you, Between massage, yoga, so many fresh fruits available year round, and active wellness community, I can invest time and money into myself here in a way that I couldn’t do as easily or affordably at home.
I also have connections with people and services here in a way that I didn’t at home. I have masseuses who know me, I go to a pharmacist who knows me and I trust completely to prescribe medications for minor issues, I have a motorbike mechanic who knows me, I don’t even need to see my laundry lady when I drop off dirty clothes because she knows me and my stuff and I know how long it will take for the clean clothes to be ready for me to pick up (and instead of 40 baht per kilo – about $1.10 – she charges me just 30 baht).
Of course, nothing’s perfect and there are certainly aspects of living here that annoy me or things that I miss from other places, but overall I’m content and the things that I would wish for are quite minor. Sometimes it would be really nice to have a soft couch to crash into. I would love to be able to buy better wine, cheese and chocolate for less, and have a real oven I could bake in. I enjoy the hot weather here, but ideally would prefer not to be completely sweating my ass off 90% of the time, and visas (anytime you’re trying to live in a foreign country) are always a headache. Mosquitoes are unavoidable – I’m bitten almost everyday and know several people who have gotten dengue fever which can be deadly. I sometimes get frustrated about being singled out or treated differently as a farang (foreigner) and can’t wrap my head around the way some things are done…but, on the other hand, I also can’t understand why many things in the U.S. are done the way they are either.
Every place has its own issues and problems, for the most part though, the majority of my life here – from dealing with the dentist to going out on a Friday night – is more easy, accessible and affordable than at home. That said, I’ve also hustled to make it work this long.
Obviously I miss my friends and family in the U.S., but I want them here to be experiencing this all with me, not the other way around. While I do have a lot of friends here, there are plenty of times that I have been alone and a little lonely in the past four years. I’ve lived alone almost half the time and working on the computer is at once freeing and isolating – you can be anywhere, but it’s still just you and a screen for hours.
People ask me if I’m going to stay here ‘forever’, which is an impossible question to answer. Ultimately, it’s about as far away from home as I could possibly be and at some point I’m going to need to make the decision to go back but for now this is where a good part of my life is and I’m running with it.
*Photo credit: First and fifth images by Lightworks360
Hey! I'm Alana and I've spent nearly the past decade living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, working as a writer and photographer. I started Paper Planes as a place to share local insight, special places, and how to travel well through a range of experiences — from hostels to high-end hotels, street meat to multi-course meals.
New places are always calling my name...
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