Chiang Mai Old City Guesthouses Not as “Cheap” as You Might Think

I’m sitting on my rock hard mattress, where the only thing that falls asleep quickly is my backside, trying to get some work done and resisting going crazy on the fresh mosquito bites around my ankles. The back door to my strange and essentially pointless balcony is open to let daylight in, which means I can’t run the A/C, and I’m sweating even with the fan on. I wasted a day yesterday in the hot sun trying in vain to find a guesthouse that I actually both like and can afford for a short long-term stay (about a month, which I’m now completely reconsidering). Everyone says Chiang Mai is awesome and cheap, but I am seriously wondering if we’re talking about the same Chiang Mai.

I am here because this is “the place to be” for digital nomads, especially travel bloggers. There are a ton of people in my network living here right now, so I thought it would be a good idea to show up for a chance to catch up on some writing and do some networking as well.

I’m really not sure what the big deal is about Chiang Mai. The old city is a square, surrounded by a moat and overflows through crowded gates into neighborhoods that definitely have their reputations and clicks. I have found really great street food, but food is the only thing I like about this place so far. I can tell because my Snapchat story has only had food in it for four days straight since I arrived.

Finding a place to live is hard, which is why so many bloggers have written about it, to share their experience and try to give their best advice for helping others. I spent a hot day walking around the old city yesterday, checking out prices and facilities at various guesthouses. That search ended in drinking three beers entirely too fast over happy hour, utterly confused about this place. Chiang Mai is supposed to be “cheap,” but perhaps that depends on your preferences and where you come from. My rent in Montana before I started this trip was cheap, cheaper than Chiang Mai, and not even close to the same value for money.

Yeah, if you want to spend $100 per month, you can. You can even get a private room. Just don’t mind the bugs crawling on the bare mattress… A lot of places don’t offer monthly rates, which means if you pay daily or weekly, you’ll be spending the equivalent of $400 a month for a basic room, probably without a fridge, lucky to have A/C, and bonus if there is a comfortable common area, not to mention a comfortable mattress. Not even close to my idea of a good value.

Rama Guest House Chiang Mai
Rama Guest House – Hard bed, A/C, private bath, stained sheets, overpriced. WTF am I doing.

As a solo traveler, I don’t have a partner to split the cost with, and my preferences are higher than basic. Apparently a soft mattress, A/C, strong (and free) WiFi, daylight, fridge, private bathroom, and comfortable common area is too much to ask for the “cheap” prices. I was hoping to pay $200-300 for a month. Not only can I not find what I want for that price, but now I’m also not about to commit for that long since I don’t know if I’ll stay.

Those are my criteria, and in the interest of others trying to look for the same thing, I will post my notes here. This is essentially a list of “don’t stay here if you want to be comfortable” places I found after a day in Old City on October 30, 2015 (just before high season) (and by the way, none of these places even know what it means to work with a blogger):

Rama Guest House: Not all it’s made out to be. The bed is hard, the sheets and bedding are stained, the nice garden with the waterfall would be great for working except it’s riddled with mosquitos (hence the bites on my ankles). It’s 500 baht per day to get a room with A/C (no discounts on A/C rooms for weekly – $98/wk), and they wanted to charge me on top of that for internet. Not happening.

VIP Guesthouse: 350 baht per day ($69/wk) for A/C and bright room, okay bed, but the rest of the place is really dark and there is no common area. Essentially you’d be secluding yourself in a hole. The room I saw apparently gets good WiFi, but some rooms don’t. Risky for a digital nomad.

Awanahouse: Shared bathroom, fan only, pool (bonus) and breakfast (bonus), 400 baht per day ($78/wk). Common areas were nice, this place is more popular so it’s less likely to have availability, like it doesn’t for me right now. Also, fan only in this heat? It’s 90 degrees and the “cool” season just started. Yikes.

Gap’s House: I couldn’t get out of this place fast enough. The man behind the desk kept yelling at me when I asked questions, a simple “Yes” would do, but he was downright rude. The rooms were strange, and there was also a strange man who just sat and stared at me the whole time, never changing his expression. The ceiling was low enough that I almost felt I had to duck. The room was bright and breakfast was included, but I couldn’t help but trust my gut on this one, and I practically ran away. 450 baht per day with A/C, no discounts for weekly or monthly ($88/wk).

Anodard Hotel: Random, but this is a big hotel right in the middle of Old City. It’s pretty antiquated, but it had soft beds and that alone almost sold me (what is with rock hard beds in this town?) No breakfast, there is a pool but it’s being remodeled right now, so no pool. 669 baht per day ($132/wk). The whole place was very outdated but I suppose could be comfortable.

TK Guesthouse: This place wasn’t bad, except the bed was not only hard, but springy as well. Shoot me in the face. It’s right off a main road, so a little noisy, but the rooms have A/C, there is sort of a kitchen (it’s kind of a weak excuse for a kitchen), private bathrooms, 450 baht per day or 400 per day if you stay a week ($78/wk).

There were several other guesthouses I wrote off for various reasons, including not nice enough, terrible bed, too pricey, no A/C, and these include: Ban Wiang, Rooms to Let, Baan JaJa, NaNa, Na Inn, N.D. House, Siri Rooms, Mini Cost.. and probably five more that I didn’t write down.

If you know ahead of time you’ll be in Chiang Mai for at least a month and want a nice place to stay, consider these:

Smith Residence: This is not in Old City, but south of the Chiang Mai gate. It’s really nice. Gym, kitchenettes, rooftop pool, really clean and bright and open common areas, big, spacious, clean rooms, but it comes with a price. I got quoted all over the board, but basically it could be anywhere from $350-600 per month, and you have to pay for electricity and water and internet separately. If you want a nice, comfortable place to stay with these amenities, book this place as far in advance as you can and try to get a room on the 3rd or 4th floor for the best value.

Baan Thai: Clean, basic apartments with fridge and A/C in Nimman area as low as $150 per month. This is a place that is often full, and other bloggers like to stay here.

Tiptop Thai House: Another popular place among bloggers that is only first come first served, you can check for availability, and it’s a good value if you can get it.

Lesson to be learned: While I thought walking around would provide me with more options than what I could find on the internet (and it did), I realize that those options are not the ones I’m looking for. If your taste and criteria is anything like mine, stick to the internet, write down a few top choices, go find them or call/email them to see if they have availability, and don’t waste a hot day walking around getting frustrated to the point of drowning yourself in Singha.

What did I decide? I’m actually really still up in the air about whether I want to stay in Chiang Mai. For the time being, I chose Rama house for the night and then got roped into staying another night because checkout is early – 10:30am and I wasn’t ready to leave. As I write this, I am doing my best to remind myself that I love traveling, and being here is my choice. Getting used to a new place is always challenging at first, and I know I’m impatient, so I hold out hope that I will still learn to like Chiang Mai, if only I can get comfortable. I’m hoping to be whisked away for the next two days to a spa in the mountains for a property review, and when I come back I will check out a hostel in the Nimman area to see if Chiang Mai gets any better by doing that. If it doesn’t, I’ll say goodbye and head up to Pai. Will update when I have a final decision.