Chiang Mai Versus Bali – Living As Digital Nomads
If you're a location independent entrepreneur or Digital Nomad you may have lived in Chiang Mai or Bali at some point, or maybe you are living in one of those cities right now! And, if you're thinking about making the move to one of these cities, this article may help you decide which is best for you- Chiang Mai versus Bali. We've had the pleasure of living in both Bali and Chiang Mai while working on growing our online business and here are our thoughts of the different aspect of each location.
Cities in Cambodia and Vietnam are also quite popular destinations with those working online and able to roam around. Even locations in South America, such as Medellin, Colombia are making their way onto the list of attractive places to live and work online.
It's no secret that we prefer Chiang Mai over Bali, but that isn't to say that there were some pretty spectacular things about Bali that we miss at times.
Chiang Mai Compared To Bali - The Pros and Cons
One of the biggest reasons we left the U.S. (perhaps even the main reason) was the cost of rent. Living in California, even with two incomes, rent took out a huge chunk of our paychecks. We weren't spending a lot on much else and still just lived paycheck to paycheck, trying to make sure we never went into debt on credit cards.
Needless to say, it was down to either living back with one of our parents or finding another way to cut down on this huge expense. Of course, we didn't feel comfortable putting our parents in this position and sacrificing their (and our own) comfort. Plus, the idea of an adventure in another country was just more thrilling to us!
Generally, you'll find that most Southeast Asian countries have a lower cost of living as compared to Western countries. Chiang Mai seems to be one of the cheapest in Southeast Asia. Our first apartment in Chiang Mai was located right in the heart of the hip Nimman neighborhood. This is a modern, young, and growing area of Chiang Mai, home to some of the best cafes and restaurants. That made getting situated convenient and quick.
Our studio on the 5th floor of a condo was brand new and cost us about $367 USD a month! Oh, and did I mention it was fully furnished?! Talk about get in and get settled quick and easy!
We had been spoiled a bit by Chiang Mai, so it was a bit of a surprise that we had a harder time finding the same quality of living arrangement in Bali. Turns out, Bali is a bit pricier when it comes to accommodations. Being a popular vacation destination for Australians, sort of like what Cabo and Cancun are to American/Canadian residents. This adds to the demand on this tiny, beach outlined, island paradise. The tiny size of the island, together with it's popularity, make it a bit more challenging when it comes to finding a great apartment at low cost.
We were able to rend a small studio
apartment shack, for $400. Yes, it was furnished. It did have a full kitchen. It was located in the popular Seminyak area and within a 10 minute walk to the beach. What it lacked in a major way was quality of the living space.
We had to walk down a dark, dirt path to get to the apartment. This might seem trivial, but Bali is know as the "island of 1000 temples and 1000 dogs". There were so many nights that even driving with the headlight of the motorbike, we were scared of some stray, street dog attacking us. Ok, moving on, the place was not very clean and badly laid out, with a never ending stench in the bathroom (we think coming from the back of the house, whatever was happening back there).
The location made us a bit uneasy about our safety. A pair of shoes were stolen from right outside our door. This is definitely something that would, almost never, happen in Chiang Mai. Yes, we did have a guard at the entrance of our Chiang Mai apartment, but that was to give more of a "prestige" to the place (and the guy mostly just helped people get in and out of the garage.
All said and done, we had a great place in Chiang Mai. It was more comfortable, clean, and safe. Additionally we had a guard, exercise room, and pool. It was way easier to find a place in Chiang Mai (through an agent) and we had many more options than when we were apartment hunting in Bali (AirBnB). So, while rent in Bali was not that much more expensive than Chiang Mai, we certainly got more bang for our buck in Chiang Mai. But, yeah, it was REAL nice being that close to the beach in Bali, I ain't gonna lie!
Looking for a place to Stay in Chiang Mai until you find your perfect apartment?Here's where we go to book.
Food & Drink
Yet another fantastic aspect of life in Chiang Mai is the plethora of food options, and they are almost ALL so good. Whether you live in the Old City or 30 minutes outside, you will find a few, if not more, fantastic food joints that you will quickly become a "regular" at.
In Chiang Mai, you can choose whether you want to have a quick bite at the noodle stall or other street food vendor, or enjoy some fine dining and everything in between. Whatever you decide, you know that you are not going to be giving up quality. Some of the best food we've had in Chiang Mai (and yes, we keep going back for more) are the street stalls.
There are options to match any budget and taste in Chiang Mai. With tons of international restaurants all around the city and the availability of Western food (yeah they got burgers!), it makes it a lot easier being away from home.
There's a bit of a different scenario with regards to food in Bali. Balinese food is good, but not as good as Thai food (I guess that's just my opinion and very debatable). To really understand the situation, you have to look at the demographics of the people visiting Bali. The visitors are a bit older, with bigger budgets, and are traveling for a different experience.
Looking for a place to Stay in Bali until you find your perfect apartment?Here's where we go to book.
Travelers to Bali still feel that they are getting a bargain for everything as compared to where they are traveling from (Europe, Australia, U.S...). They are a bit different than the 20-something backpacker traveling to Thailand. They stay at resorts, villas, and hotels. Not so much at hostels and guesthouses. Therefore, the food options match their accommodations.
There are some fantastic restaurants and cafes in Seminyak, Kuta, and Ubud. The day bars on the beach are some of the coolest spots to hang out and enjoy a magical concoction as the sun sets to trendy beats put on by the DJ. There are also trendy cafes and dessert shops sprinkled all around town. Are you seeing a trend here? Yeah, pretty much everything is geared towards the vacationer. That person who has saved some money and is there for a getaway. And you know what? They are happy with the prices, because it's probably still way cheaper than back home for them.
For the traveler that is looking for more of a savings and a longer stay, touristy, trendy places to eat can get a bit annoying. There are cheap eateries called Warungs that are more comparable to street food in Chiang Mai. These, however, are few and far in between. Not to mention that the food quality is sup-par. The oily, starchy options are nothing compared to the fresh, healthier options of Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is known to many as the Digital Nomad capital of the world and offers a wide array of work options. Bali is also known for its digital nomad scene, however, it’s a not quite at the Chiang Mai level quite yet.
Having checked out co-working spaces in both cities, we’ll talk about both options. If you’ve stayed more than a week in Chiang Mai and were looking to work then you’ve probably heard of the popular Punspace co-working space. It’s roughly $100 USD per month for an unlimited membership (note: they do have other options).Their first location opened up a few years ago in the Nimman area where the majority of digital nomads live. About two years ago, Punspace decided to open up their second space, which is located in the heart of the Old City (that’s the main tourist area).
We’ve worked in both locations and they are quite different. A lot of people like the Nimman Punspace, however, it didn’t fit our style. To be honest, we’re not the most social of folks, and that place can feel claustrophobic and full of distractions.It’s not a bad thing considering all entrepreneurs should be networking. But it can be hard to find a seat during the busier months, and overall it feels a bid crowded.
The newer Punspace located in the Old City is much larger and has been a great spot to get our focus on. It’s definitely not as social as the Nimman location. That said, people do take breaks to chat with one another.
Now, back to the Bali co-working scene. To be fair, we only checked out one space called Wave (near Kuta). From what we’ve heard, the most popular co-working space is located in Ubud (think it’s called Hubud).
Wave was a budget option space that did the job for us at the time. The place was small, but never felt crowded as it never filled up to capacity. In short, Wave got the job done for us during our two-month stay in Bali (About $200/month).
Note: We've recently been hearing about Canggu, Bali. It seams to be getting popular with some digital nomads, but we never made it there...
There’s not much to compare here. Bottom line: Chiang Mai’s internet is substantially better than Bali. Many digital nomads have said something like this about Chiang Mai and Bali.
“Chiang Mai would go from a great digital nomad spot to unbelievable if only it had a beach.”
Motorbiking is probably the best mode of getting around in both Bali and Chiang Mai. Motorbikes are cheap to rent in both locations and offer a great way to get around quickly. Parking and traffic in both places can get pretty bad. Bali's traffic situation is way worse that Chiang Mai. Although, CM might be catching up soon.
If yo're new to driving a motorbike, you'll find that Chiang Mai traffic and streets provide an easier learning atmosphere. Drivers in Bali tend to be faster and more aggressive. The streets there are narrower and more populated with both pedestrians and drivers, so navigating around all that adds a particular kind of challenge.
As far as getting around on public transportation, it's cheaper and easier in Chiang Mai. There are Songthaews (Red Trucks) that you can take around town for about 50 cents. If you have more specific destinations to get to, a tuk tuk will do the trick for around $5-$8 USD.Bali's public transportation is basically limited to guys on motorbikes offering rides or taxis. The latter can get pricey, depending on where you go. We never experienced the guys on their motorbikes, so we don't know the cost, but I can't imagine it being much. They are practically on every street and approach pedestrians on a regular basis with "taxi?" so they are not hard to miss.
Those traveling to Chiang Mai on a multiple entry Tourist Visa can add 30 more days after their first 60 days in the country (for each entry). The process for extending the Tourist Visa in Chiang Mai is pretty painless and straight forward. The immigration office is very organized and efficient. Most people have very positive comments about their experience of this.
We got a Tourist Visa for Bali, which allowed us to stay for 30 days. After that time, we were able to extend it an additional 30 days. The process proved a bit more challenging. There are two locations for the immigration office. Of course, we went to the wrong one. That was annoying in itself, but it was worsened by the fact that the officer there was not helpful in guiding us at all. She just shoved the paperwork back in our faces. We had no idea why. Eventually, we figured out that we needed to go to the other location.
Once at the correct immigration office, the wait was longer. The procedures were not as efficient. But, after spending half the day on it, we walked out with our extension.
General Feel and Safety
Once again, I'm going to refer back to the fact that Bali is highly geared towards the tourist (mostly Aussie). As, you can imagine, the streets are lined with little souvenir and trinket shops. Now, I love shopping as much as the next girl, but when you are staying somewhere long term this gets a bit old after a while.
As you walk down any street, you are constantly bombarded by the shopkeepers trying to entice you to get into their store. They do this, sometimes just by shouting "shopping? You buy something" and at times actually walking with you trying to convince you that you need to buy something. This pushiness sometimes gets to the point where they block your way on the sidewalk (in a playful way) to get your attention.
I don't know about you, but I don't like being a tourist. I enjoy the chill vibes of Chiang Mai. Where sometimes, it's even hard to get shopkeepers to put down what they are doing to help you. You just don't get that feel of being a consumer, with your only purpose being to buy something. Chiang Mai allows you to feel like you live there. You may never feel like a local, but it also doesn't feel like the locals are looking at you as if you are a Dollar Sign.
Some Other Thoughts
- Chiang Mai is probably safer that 99% of the rest of the world, including Bali. But Bali is still not bad in safety.
- The streets and buildings are cleaner and better organized (as far as city planning goes)
- Bali is overrun with stray dogs.
- The weather is pretty much perfect at all times of the year in both cities. Chiang Mai does have the "smoke season" in March, which is really unbearable.
- Chiang Mai has some of the best coffee and at lower prices than Bali.
- Dental and Medical are better in Chiang Mai versus Bali. The quality and standards are very high, but the prices are amazingly low. You can even get aesthetic services like laser hair removal and Botox in the many clinics. Fertility treatments in Chiang Mai are also gaining popularity.
- Both places give you a lot to do in the way of exploring and site-seeing.
The Day To Day Stuff - Chiang Mai Versus Bali
Is it just me or is doing laundry in Bali feel like the most challenging thing? In Chiang Mai, most homes have a washing machine. Apartments have a laundry room, and if they don't, there are tons of laundromats around town. They range from actual places that you can get your laundry done or do it yourself to a row of washers next to a building on the street. There are dryers here and there, but most people just line dry their clothes.
During our time in Bali, we made the mistake of sending out our clothes to be washed by a service. This cost as much as getting laundry done at a hotel in the U.S.! We didn't make that mistake twice. Since we could not find any places in Seminyak or Bali to do our own laundry, we had to make the 30 minute drive out to Denpasar once a week. Not fun at all!
Other than that, groceries were mostly comparable in price for imported items. Getting fresh fruit from the market is a lot easier and plentiful in Chiang Mai. We found one small market near Seminyak, but it was nothing compared to the markets that are sprinkled all around Chiang Mai.
Have you stayed long-term in Bali or Chiang Mai? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.
About the Author
Hi! I'm just a California girl addicted to travel and adventure with a passion for art and dance on the side. Born in Iran, but I consider myself a citizen of Earth, adhering to the belief that "The world is but one country and mankind its citizen." I strive to make a positive impact on everyone I meet and learn as much as possible from them. My degree out of college is in Marketing. However, I entered the hospitality business at an early age and worked my way up to hotel management. After about 13 years in that industry (5 of which I was a hotel assistant manager), I made the decision to move to Thailand and leave the 9 to 5 grind behind. My husband and I set off for a life of living abroad and hopes to continue traveling the world, just 3 months after our wedding. It all started with the two of us, along with our cat, together in Thailand. Can't wait to see where life takes us next!