In search of an apartment during high season in Chiang Mai

Thailand is a land of beautiful beaches, tropical forests, magnificent temples, and gentle people. It is also the land of cheap living.  Even now, after a decade of explosive growth in the tourism industry, Thailand is still a bargain for foreigners.  After a week in Chiang Mai, we are amazed at how cheap things are.  A delicious, nutritious meal costs $1-2 CAD in a local restaurant, (street food is even cheaper), a dorm bed starts at $3 CAD, AND a 500 ml bottle of mineral water costs 7 Baht (0.21 CAD) at the local 7/11 corner store.  It’s no wonder so many people come here for longer stays, many ex-pats making this their permanent home away from home.

Apartments are cheap too.  A small studio starts at about 8,000 Baht.  That’s just $240 CAD per month!  Of course, as with everything, you get what you pay for.  Larger 1 bedroom apartments in buildings with amenities like a pool and a gym, cost between 10,000 and 15,000 Baht.  Want a brand new, modern building?  The cost goes up even more.  If you’re willing to go out of town a little, you can rent a large house for about 20,000 Baht per month. Sounds great, doesn’t it?  So why have we found it so hard to find an apartment?  Here’s what we’ve learned so far during our apartment search:

  1. Supply and demand.  Christmas time is peak season with many places being reserved months or even a year in advance.  That means there are fewer units available, and of course, whatever is left is going at a premium.
  2. Short versus long term rental. Most units require a 6-12 month lease which puts them out of our search.  We want a 1-2 month contract for a fully furnished unit.
  3. Serviced apartment versus condominium.  A serviced apartment is very much like a hotel.  You enjoy amenities like daily housekeeping, pool and fitness area.  On the down side, these apartments tend to be quite small and sterile like a hotel room and are much pricier.  These units are very popular amongst foreigners because they are geared to short term stays  from one week or more.  Of course, that means there aren’t many units available this time of year. Condominiums, on the other hand, are usually rented out by the owner and are furnished in a more homier manner.  It takes time to find these one-off units and then it takes time to make enquiries about availability, price, etc.
  4. New versus older buildings:  There’s been a building boom going on in Chiang Mai for a while, resulting in lots of glossy new condos which makes the older buildings look pretty dated and sometimes downright shabby.  Apartments in newer buildings cost significantly more than those in older buildings and generally have better amenities as well as units that boast clean, modern decor and design.
  5. With or without a kitchen:  Kitchens are a novelty here in Thailand, especially a western style kitchen.  A typical kitchen has a small bar fridge, hot plate and microwave.  That’s it.  Moving up a notch on the price scale might yield a two burner stove and a larger fridge and a foot or two of counter space, but not much more.   These minuscule kitchens are quite poorly equipped as well – a single wok, a few dishes and cutlery is all you’re going to find.  Apartments with full kitchens are rare and are accordingly priced at a premium.  We thought we needed a full kitchen, but quickly adjusted our “needs” to meet what was available.  Soon we found ourselves saying things like: look at this kitchen, it even has a cutting board and knife!
  6. Size really does matter: Studio sized apartments with less then 40 sq m of space are a dime a dozen here in Chiang Mai and are the easiest and cheapest places to find on a short term basis.  But these units don’t feel much bigger than a hotel room and typically have the most basic of kitchens if they have a kitchen at all.
  7. Location, Location, Location: We quickly learned that it’s virtually impossible to find a one bedroom unit with a functioning kitchen within walking distance of the Old City.  Larger apartments seem to be located a few kilometres away from the city core, while houses are even further afield, up to 10 km away.

After a thorough two-week search, we had narrowed our options down to two apartments both of which were located a few kilometres away from the city center.

One apartment was in a serviced building with gorgeous amenities.  At 43,000 Baht per month, it was the most expensive apartment we saw and it was only available for the month of January.

The other apartment was in an older building but the unit itself had just been renovated into a modern, spacious, open layout with breathtaking views from the wrap-around 13th floor balcony.  It was priced a little better at 35,0000 Baht plus utilities.

We weren’t over the moon over either property – each had its pros and cons, the biggest con of each being the remote location.

After a lot of debate and oscillating back and forth between the two, we decided to take neither.  We realized that location was the most important factor for us; we love being in the city center where we can walk everywhere.  Even with a scooter, we still prefer to be in a walkable location.

Besides, we are very comfortable in our current location, Kamala’s Guesthouse.  This place is super clean, the rooms are bright and spacious, and the owners are friendly and extremely helpful.  The common areas are inviting, relaxing and comfortable too.  The onsite restaurant serves up great food, as does the little restaurant next door.  And it’s dirt cheap compared to the apartments at a mere $3300 Baht per week.  Best of all is the location.  We are within less than a block from the moat which marks the perimeter of the old city center.  We can walk everywhere and we do, everyday.  I’ve even marked out a nice running route through the twisty, winding lanes and alley ways.

Cat’s restaurant next to Kamala’s – we have at least one meal here a day.
The food is freshly prepared with lots of healthy ingredients and its tasty and cheap too! 

Another restaurant just around the corner from us.

Lots of laundry shops in our neighbourhood.  It costs 30-40 Baht per kg
(about $1 CAD) to have your clothes washed, dried, pressed and folded.  At that
price, it would be foolish to try to do it ourselves!    

In short, we are comfortable where we are, so we’ve signed up for another two weeks.  After that we’ll just play it by ear, like we always do.

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