Thailand’s Three Best Mountain Towns for Simple Living

There’s no shortage of natural beauty in northern Thailand. There are dozens of rivers like the Mae Ping, which originates in the forest-clad Daen Lao mountain range and flows down through the temple-laden city of Chiang Mai. Waterfalls gush into fertile valleys like Mae Sa, where you’ll find elephant camps, orchid farms, and miles of lush jungle.

This is a peaceful—some might say serene—part of the country, where for very little money you can enjoy a high level of comfort. With just $1,200 a month a couple won’t want for much, and that includes rent. Many expats live here for even less. You’ll find some modest one-bedroom rentals for as little as $250 a month.

No need for air conditioning, either. Average temperatures in northern Thailand are lower than in the rest of the country…in the cool season, daytime temperatures in the 70s F are common. This cooler climate attracts many expats, as does the slow pace of life. Whether it’s a riverside village nestled in a wide, green valley, or a home at the end of a quiet lane, within city limits, you’ll find plenty of relaxation, peace, and tranquillity. Here are the three best destinations the region offers.

City Life and Small-Town Charm

Chiang Mai is less than a two-hour flight from Bangkok. It’s Thailand’s original mountain retreat, surrounded by some of the highest mountain ranges in the country. Considered the cultural heart of the north, Chiang Mai is chock-full of ancient temples and distinctive architecture. It’s a bona-fide city with plenty of amenities, including Western supermarkets and access to quality medical care. Yet Chiang Mai evokes small-town living, with its riverside cafés, abundance of quaint alleyways inside the Old City, and friendly smiles from the locals.

Chiang Mai is a shopper’s paradise, where you can find everything from silk to Thai handicrafts to custom-made teak furniture, all at extremely reasonable prices. After all these years, the Night Market is still a main attraction, though many prefer the Sunday Walking Street Market, near Tha Pae Gate, for the array of goods and the friendly vibes.

Local expats can choose from a variety of activities, including biking, book clubs, and tennis. There’s no shortage of golf courses in the area and you can see first-run Western movies at local cinemas for as little as $3. The streets of Chiang Mai’s Old City are lined with spas offering foot massages for less than $8. And for just $60 you can indulge in a two-hour spa treatment, including aromatherapy massage and a facial.

“Our living costs are much cheaper in Chiang Mai than in Portland,” says Kay Calavan, an American who has lived in Chiang Mai both full- and part-time for many years with her husband Mike. Even factoring in the round-trip air travel between Oregon and Thailand, Kay says they save money. And when in Thailand, the Calavans take advantage of quality, affordable medical and dental services. “When we have medical issues, we go to practitioners at Ram Hospital, which is close to our home,” says Kay.

Local expats continue to find great deals on rent, both inside the city and in the surrounding area. A year’s lease on a fully-furnished, one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment with mountain views, close to the popular Nimmanhaemin Road area, goes for $390 a month. For $500 monthly, you can rent a furnished two-bedroom, two-bathroom house in hilly Mae Rim, outside town, with a large, modern kitchen and well-maintained yard. Click here for more details.

A Laid-Back Lifestyle in an Idyllic Setting

Located north of Chiang Mai near the Burmese border, Pai offers stunning scenery and peaceful, easy-on-the-wallet living.

Nestled along the Pai River in a postcard-perfect valley, with views of the surrounding mountains and rice paddies, Pai is ideal for nature lovers and for those who thrive in off-the-grid locations. Here, you can simply relax—in a riverside hammock with a book or over a cappuccino in a local café. Explore the countryside with a visit to nearby hot springs and waterfalls or take advantage of Pai’s many activities, from yoga and meditation to cooking and massage. Or stop by one of a handful of restaurants and bars lining Pai’s main thoroughfare and enjoy a variety of nightly live music.

In Pai, you’ll find a small but well-connected expat community that appreciates the laid-back lifestyle, English-speaking locals, and cool climate. Texan Dave Waltz, who’s been living off and on in Thailand for over 10 years, loves the near-perfect weather as well as the Pai vibe. “Locals here have many theories…it could be the feng shui of the mountains, the high water quality, the clean air, or the geographical location…all we know is that a lot of happiness is happening in Pai,” he says.

You’ll find the rents affordable, too. For just $280 a month, you can rent a furnished, one-bedroom, one-bathroom, lakeside cottage outside town…$530 gets you a spacious two-bedroom villa just a mile from downtown Pai, completely furnished, with WiFi and a large balcony perfect for enjoying the mountain views. See here for further information.

Quiet Mountain Living with Plenty of Amenities

Located just 110 miles north of Chiang Mai in Thailand’s northernmost province, this one-time capital of the ancient Lanna kingdom offers an easy, low-key lifestyle with the right mix of amenities. Situated in a gorgeous valley between two mountain ranges, in Chiang Rai you can have it all—rural, mountain living with modern comforts, all at an affordable price.

In the city proper, you can choose from coffee shops, Westernstyle restaurants, and popular Thai food stalls. Supermarkets, wet markets, and a new multi-story shopping mall are all on offer. There’s a Night Market near the bus station, where you can take a stroll and shop for everything from local crafts to DVDs. On Saturday nights, the open-air Walking Street Market is not to be missed.

Considered a laid-back alternative to the bustle of nearby Chiang Mai, here you’ll find a network of expats who appreciate the area’s traditional character and welcoming locals. “Chiang Rai has a good community feel…if you like a quieter lifestyle, it is ideal,” says Neil Ray, a British writer and editor who’s lived in Thailand for eight years and who organizes monthly gatherings of the local Chiang Rai Expats Club. 

There are plenty of housing options in town. But many expats choose to live in the villages dotted throughout the valley, where views of lush green rice fields, orchards, streams, and rugged mountains are part of daily life. Known as the “gateway” to the Golden Triangle, center of the historic opium trade, Chiang Rai is an explorer’s dream, full of coffee plantations, forests, reservoirs, gardens, and traditional hill-tribe villages.

This slice of rural Thailand offers some of the most affordable living around. Just four miles from the city center, a furnished two-bedroom, three-bathroom home with a patio and attractive views rents for $280 a month. Or for $1,250 monthly, you can splurge on a modern, four-bedroom, four-bathroom home featuring 4,300 square feet and sweeping mountain views. For more information see here.