If you’ve ever been to Chiang Mai you’ll know that it’s easy to have a great time here without making too much of a dent in your travel budget and that’s just one of the reasons why we and seemingly every other backpacker love it.
We’re long term travellers who want to live on £1,000 or less per month but we don’t really want to sacrifice on comfort or experience – this is our life after all. If we wanted to be unhappy we would have stayed at home, am I right?
So whilst Chiang Mai is a really affordable destination, things do still add up especially if, like us, you like to have fun. We’ve found that the best way to manage our budget is to skimp out on the boring stuff and spend hard on the things that we enjoy. This is why you’ll normally find us 3 cocktails deep in a bar somewhere!
To that end, here are our top tips to save money in Chiang Mai… so that you can then spend more on cool stuff.
Sometimes it seems that hostels are the only accommodation available to backpackers on a budget. To be honest, they’re not really our thing. Maybe if we were 18 and not 28 we’d be able to get down with it but honestly, after 10 years of owning our own property we definitely aren’t cut out for shared dorm living.
We did briefly consider staying in a private room in a hostel in town but the moment passed as soon as we discovered we could stay in a large apartment on our own for the same price. How?
Simple. We stayed outside of town.
It takes us about 45 minutes to walk or 5 minutes to drive into town and this minor inconvenience buys us the luxury of a nice, private apartment. Personally, we’ve come to find the location a bonus as we have been lucky enough to really experience life as locals over here in this residential region. We’ve had a lot of exercise walking into town (which we really needed) and we’ve found loads of cool restaurants and coffee shops that we wouldn’t have otherwise crossed paths with. It also seems to be easier to get access to cheap things meant more for locals than foreigners.
Walking to financial freedom
Speaking of walking, we’ve been doing a lot of it.
Initially we had planned to use songthaews to hop all over town and at around 50 baht / £1 per ride it is a really cheap way to get around. However we’ve got into the habit of walking everywhere that can be walked to. Not only have we saved money, got loads of free exercise and used the time to brainstorm for our business, we’ve also become road crossing Jedi’s.
The ironic thing is that all the money we’ve saved on songthaews we’ve probably spent on buying iced coffee which we love to drink whilst we wander but hey, it’s a really enjoyable part of our day and is a great example of how we skimp on the boring and spend on the fun.
Cheap and clean drinking water from these bad boys!
Water has got to be one of the most boring things to buy whilst travelling but it’s probably the thing that you will buy most often because generally tap water is unsafe to drink. If at home in Arctic England we’re supposed to drink 2 litres a day each, how much should we be drinking here where even in winter the temperature hovers around 30 degrees every day? Probably a lot.
On the day we arrived we bought a couple of litres of water at a nearby 7-Eleven for 30 baht / 60p each. Cheap, right? Absolutely! Back home the same thing would cost maybe £1.50 but if we need to buy at least 2 bottles each per day of our two month stay that… wait whilst I get the calculator… man, that’s like £144! That’s insane and a huge dent in our frugal budget.
Straight away we combined forces to come up with a plan to overcome our water worries and after much brainstorming, we decided the only course of action was to stop drinking water. Just kidding. But only just.
Instead we risked trying the water machines that you’ll see scattered all over town. We’d heard so many horror stories about these before arriving, mostly about how the water isn’t clean and how if you drink it, you will definitely die, however we decided it was worth the risk.
Fast forward 6 weeks we have been using these machines daily and guess what? No sudden case of death in either of us. No stomach complaints either come to think of it. In fact, we think they’re great! And at 1 baht / 2p per litre, they’re our kinda thing.
Yummy and cheap food from street vendors
We love food and so a big part of our budget is always going to be spent on tasty treats. Before arriving we’d heard that the cheapest way to eat in Chiang Mai was at market stalls but I was sceptical. I’d rather skip 50p dinners that tasted rubbish and made me sick in favour of going to restaurants and that’s exactly what we did for the first couple of days. Until we realised something quite epic. Market food is the best food. Seriously. It really does cost less than £1 for a delicious meal that is so nom worthy we don’t even think about the food back home.
You might think that buying ingredients and cooking back at your apartment would save you money, but oddly, it’s still much cheaper to eat at the market. Just look at the sheer number of locals doing it for all the proof you need.
Don’t be put off – try it early on and save an absolute fortune. Eating at the market 6 days a week means we get to go to our favourite restaurant once a week (on Wednesdays!) where we both drink lots of cocktails and eat a huge meal for around £20. It’s still cheap but we couldn’t afford to do it every day!
Public washing machines are dotted around Chiang Mai
We travel with two relatively small back packs which means that we wear the same outfit about three times a week (it feels like it anyway). Because of this we need to wash our clothes. A lot.
If we went to a launderette we would pay around 60 baht / £1.20 per kilo of washing and this boring expense is going to add up pretty quickly and would quite literally rinse our budget.
To limit the impact, we do our own laundry. Once a week we’ll do a hand wash in our kitchen sink using hot water and washing powder and then twice a month we go to the public laundry machines. This can be quite a chore as they don’t lock so you actually have to sit with your washing for an hour while the machine does its thang (although none of the locals do so it’s pretty safe to leave it), but it costs 20 baht / 40p for 8 kilos. That is some serious budget washing.
Don’t be hasty with the A/C
Our apartment charges a separate fee for electricity based on the amount we use each month. We are seriously frugal energy users and always have been as we do love a budget, but it is almost impossible to limit your electricity consumption here when you use air conditioning all night. And if you want to get any sleep in this heat, you’ll be using your air con regularly.
Though it’s quite a frustrating expense, I wouldn’t actually mind paying for a good night’s sleep but our air conditioning unit is so noisy that it actually kept us awake. So now we’re paying for… a bad night’s sleep…? Not happening.
On day three we went shopping. For 200 baht / £4 we managed to purchase a second hand fan which both works at a respectable audio level and uses a much smaller quantity of electricity meaning that we pretty much cut our utility bill in half and slept better. We can’t take it with us when we move on but we’ll just donate it to someone in the building and spread the money saving joy.
We found early on in our stay that prices fluctuate wildly within the space of a few steps. You already know that iced coffee is our drug of choice and we spend a lot of money on it, but not as much as we would have if we didn’t shop around.
One day whilst we were temple hopping in town the java itch surfaced and we went on the hunt to satisfy our craving. We passed over the first three coffee shops we saw because the prices ranged from 70 – 140 baht (£1.40 – £1.80) per coffee which is a little more than we are used to paying. Just one street over we found another shop selling a whole range of iced coffees for just 35 baht / 70p each. They were delicious too. We essentially got one coffee free just because we shopped around.
We’ll still spend money when we need to and our entertainment budget is particularly high but by using the above money saving techniques, we’re still able to have a great time on budget!
Have you got any tips to add? We’d love to hear them! Let us know and we’ll get them added!