From Digital Nomad to Expat – Putting Down Roots in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Eleven and a half years ago I set out to see the world. I was 54 years old at the time and had spent the last 36 years working at various jobs that had included, among other things, selling newspaper ads, managing a women’s department store, owning a public relations firm, and managing real estate franchises. At one point I even co-owned and operated a Sno-Cone kiosk in the largest water park in Puerto Rico! None of my jobs, or the comfortable lifestyle they afforded me, had ever made me happy. In fact, I was miserable. But rather than changing my life, I kept repeating the same behavior and expecting different results. And that, as they say, is the definition of insanity.

Fortunately, a severe illness kicked me out of my complacency. When I realized I might die, I promised myself that if I recovered, I would walk away from corporate life to pursue my true passions of travel, photography, and writing. (Read more details about my journey of self-discovery on my about page). A year later, I slung a backpack over my shoulder and set off on a six-month around-the-world journey. One of my stops was Thailand. I’d visited in 2004 and loved it. After my second visit, I was addicted to Thailand.

Living Room of my new apartment as I settle into expat life in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Living Room of my new apartment as I settle into expat life in Chiang Mai, Thailand

In 2009, I finally gave up my apartment in Florida and became a full-time digital nomad with no home base. I worked wherever I could get a wifi connection and carried everything I needed in a 22″ carry-on suitcase and a small backpack. More than 3,000 stories and thousands of photos later, I’d successfully recreated myself as a travel writer, but I was also searching for my perfect paradise. During my 11+ years on the road, I visited 94 countries and seriously considered a number of destinations as potential homes. Budapest, Croatia, and Bulgaria, though intriguing, just weren’t right for one reason or another. But the idea of choosing an expat life in Chiang, Mai, Thailand kept drawing me back.

Living Room and Kitchen of my new apartment in Chiang Mai, Thailand
Living Room and Kitchen of my new apartment in Chiang Mai, Thailand

A couple of years ago, I began having severe problems with my knees and hips. It was no longer easy for me to carry my suitcase up and down the stairs of Metro and train stations around Europe, much less deal with the poor infrastructure in developing countries. Eventually, my chronic joint pain began impacting more than just my physical body. My childlike wonder disappeared. Every destination looked the same. Travel became a chore rather than a joy. My writing lost its luster. I needed a good long rest. I needed to find a home again.

The kitchen of my new apartment - now all I need to do is learn to cook
The kitchen of my new apartment – now all I need to do is learn to cook

I’d come close to putting down roots before, but never seemed to be able to make the final commitment. I was scared of falling back into “material girl” mode, that I would once again begin to collect unnecessary “stuff.” And what if I didn’t like being in one place? I’d be trapped for at least a year. Fortunately, I’d been wintering in Chiang Mai, Thailand, for the past several years. I’d always become bored with other destinations that initially appealed to me, but Chiang Mai never seemed to lose its allure. I was gutted each time I left.

Over the winter of 2016-2017 I spent five months in the city known as the cultural capital of Thailand. And still I was distressed when it came time to hit the road again. There was little doubt that the expat life in Chiang Mai was for me. I met with the management of Smith Suites, the serviced apartment complex where I’d been staying the past few winters, and arranged to rent a year-round apartment when I returned. My days as a digital nomad would be coming to an end, but I eagerly looked forward to my new life in Chiang Mai.

Huge bedroom in my new apartment in Chiang Mai, Thailand, has plenty of room for morning Yoga
Huge bedroom in my new apartment in Chiang Mai, Thailand, has plenty of room for morning Yoga

I moved into my new apartment this past February 1st and I’m deliriously happy. Frankly, I don’t know what took me so long. At some level, I’ve always known I would end up in Chiang Mai. I guess I just had to check all the other places off my list before I could truly admit that there is no better place for me. It’s wonderful to have a home again, where I can plant my “stuff.” A few weeks ago, I got my 90-day Non-O Thai visa, which was subsequently extended to a year, based on retirement. The “retirement visa” is renewable on an annual basis for an affordable fee. And speaking of affordability, the cost of living in Thailand is extremely attractive. I’ve chosen to rent a more expensive modern apartment in a newer building that has a pool, gym, and 24-hour security, however it is entirely possible to rent an apartment or house here for less than $400 USD per month.

Modern bath of my apartment in Chiang Mai has a huge soaking tub and a separate shower
Modern bath of my apartment in Chiang Mai has a huge soaking tub and a separate shower

Settling down as an expat in Chiang Mai, however, doesn’t mean that I’ll stop traveling. In fact, in 2018 I will reach a long-time goal when I visit my 100th country, and I’ll be doing some really fun things this year. I hit the road again at the end of April, bound for a 17-day tour of Ethiopia with Ethio Travel and Tours. Long on my travel wish list, my tour of Ethiopia will include the rock-hewn churches of Lalibela and visits to a number of tribes in the Omo Valley. From there, I head for a fabulous 15-day land and sea tour of Greece with Collette, which will include Athens, Mykonos, Santorini, Delphi, Metéora and much more. September will find me in French Polynesia, where I’ll be sailing on the Aranui 5, a dual-purpose passenger/freighter that sails from Tahiti to the Marquesas, Tuamotu and Society Islands.

Private balcony of my apartment is one of the best places to enjoy expat life in Chiang Mai, especially at sunset
Private balcony of my apartment is one of the best places to enjoy expat life in Chiang Mai, especially at sunset

I couldn’t be more excited about this year’s itinerary, and not only because of the places I’ll be visiting. Having a home base again means I can travel lighter, stay on the road for shorter periods, and go back to my comfortable little apartment whenever I need a break from traveling. I hope that you, my loyal followers, will continue to travel with me vicariously as I take you to more of the world’s most fascinating destinations.

Editor’s note: My readers are often astonished by the vagabond life I lead, assuming it is quite unique. I tell them that there are many digital nomads who travel the world extensively or permanently. If  you have further interest in what it’s like to be an expat, check out this article by fellow blogger Sanne Wesselman, which provides further insight into what it’s like to live in Chiang Mai. For another overview of what it’s like to travel perpetually, check out Agness and Cez at eTramping. In this article, for instance, they feature a photo of Tibet taken from a train window.

From Digital Nomad to Expat - Putting Down Roots in Chiang Mai, Thailand

94 thoughts on “From Digital Nomad to Expat – Putting Down Roots in Chiang Mai, Thailand”

  1. I recently discovered your blog and find your journey to be so very inspiring. I haven’t been able to travel at all during COVID (like much of the world) and your blog gives me glimpses into places I’d love to visit someday. Your photography is stunning and I find your writing style to be friendly as well as informative. Thanks so much for all your efforts.

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  2. Hi Barbara,
    I just discovered you and your blog as I sit in my new apartment in Chiang Mai as I contemplate my life and future! I’m 50+ and came to Thailand in 2014 to teach English as the answer to my “mid-life crisis”. I’ve been hopping around for the past 2 years: traveling, taking yoga courses, teaching yoga and really getting to know myself. I had planned to move here in 2016 and kept getting side-tracked, but now I’m here for a minimum of 3 months, potentially making it my “home-base” as well.
    I would love to meet you and swap some stories one day if I end up staying here! I hope to start a blog of my own asap as I am finally ready to open the door and share my experiences on a more personal level. I look forward to seeing and reading more about your experiences.

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    • HI Barbara,
      I have and still do travel extensively at 76. I did find it lost its zip so started doing volunteer work abroad and have lived in 6 countries extensively and that works better for me now. I really get to know a place , the language and people who live there and what their culture is like. Plus, for me giving back, is important. Now I live in Vancouver 6 months and presently Oaxaca Mexico for 6 months ( although not this year with covid). Hopefully next year traveling again. Insurance is a challenge being older but I have friends all over the world and have met many beautiful people and have wonderful adventures to remember. HAPPY TRAILS! Carol

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      • Hi Carol: I feel myself slowing down more and more but I am determined to find ways to continue to travel. Happy to hear you are doing the same. There are few things more rewarding in this world than getting outside oneself and getting to know people from other cultures.

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    • Thanks so much Mary. I’m back on the road now for a couple of months, and it’s amazing how much of a difference having a home base has made. I’m back to enjoying it immensely and seeing the world with childlike wonder once again.

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  3. Barbara,
    Your new apartment looks beautiful and I’m so happy you are enjoying this new phase of your life. Your 2018 travel plans sound fabulous! Best wishes to you! I really enjoyed this post!

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    • Thanks so much Margie! I’m really honored that you find time to read my blog, considering how busy you are with your own travels. I hope that some day you’ll consider visiting me in Chiang Mai. I have a sofa ready and waiting whenever you’re ready.

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  4. This post makes me miss you and Chiang Mai so much! Your apartment looks so bright and cheerful.

    Recently made it to Taiwan which is going to be our “home base” for the next few months and I can’t help but compare Taipei to Chiang Mai. I know, not the same comparison but still… I can’t help it!

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    • Hi Nancy: I know exactly what you mean. I’m back on the road again for a couple of months and miss Chiang Mai every day. Taiwan, especially Taipei, is high on my wish list, especially since it can be done as a short trip of a week or so from Thailand. I have heard they have some wonderful cultural festivals, so I hope I’ll be reading about them on your blog in the near future.

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  5. I am retiring at the end of this week and I am struggling with some things. One I really want to travel, I’m gonna start in the U.S. and see how that goes. I have some things to do on my house before i decide what to do with it. But that is not why i am struggling. My kids and I are very close and I have a brand new grand daughter, my first. I raised my kids by myself and like i said we are close. I am having a hard time thinking about cutting the umbilical cord with them. They are both 20’s/30’s so it should be easy but i am having a hard time with it. I am wondering if anyone who reads this site has gone thru the same thing and how they over came it. I have watched my neighbors grow old just doing not much of anything. I really don’t want to do that. I have looked on other blogs and sites but nobody really talks about that aspect of life. I can’t be the only one who feels this way. I am posting this year in hopes that someone reads it and can give some advice hope you don’t mind.

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    • Hi Dave: While I don’t have any kids or grandkids, I just wanted to pop in to say that these days there are discount carriers that offer very affordable airfare between Europe and even Asia, so you would probably be able to make a couple of trips home each year to see them. Check out Aer Lingus, AirAsia, Air India, EVA, easyJet, IcelandAir, Norwegian Air, Ryan Air, Scoot, Turkish Air, Ukraine International Airways (UIA), and Wizz Air, for starters.

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    • Dear Dave,
      I wonder if you have solved your problem.

      I for my part have a husband who is not able to travel since there is the danger for him of becoming severely sick whereas I would love to travel all the time. So I feel trapped since I really love him.
      All the best
      Jutta

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  6. Hey Barbara,
    Am really happy that you found your little paradise and also that you will keep on traveling and writing about it for our enjoyment.
    I travel along with you and can\’t wait to hit the road full time. Wife and I will be in CM in November and would love to meet up for coffee at Woo Cafe if you\’re around.

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    • Hi Wagner: I’ll be here in November, so I’d love to meet up at Woo. Just email me directly when you get here and we can set something up.

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  7. I started reading your adventures a few years back, lost track (life) but picked up on it again. It’s so good to read this recent revelation and to hear you’re happy with your new direction!

    I’m about to start something new, something important to me and echoes everything you’ve written about on your excellent blog. I’m turning 40 in June and have just left my job to pursue photography and potentially writing – I’m keen to learn where to start this journey and a friend like yourself advised Thailand – He said the draw and allure was just too much – he had to keep going back!

    I’ll be checking in with your story much more often from now on!

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    • Hi Casper, and welcome back 🙂 So good to hear that you have found a way to pursue your passions as well. I wish you great success with your endeavor.

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  8. We spent March in Chiang Mai, funny enough at the Smith Residence. My mother had lived 6 years in Chiang Mai and loved it until getting a bit fed up with the increased traffic and pollution over the last few years (now lives in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico). So we knew the good and the bad of Chiang Mai before coming – but we didn’t expect to enjoy CM as much as we did. Yes, the smog and traffic suck but there are so many things that make up for it the principal one being that it’s such an easy place to live. Anything is possible in Chiang Mai.
    We’ll actually be back for the better part of a month in May after finishing our adventures travelling through Thailand and Malaysia to Singapore.

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    • Hi Frank: Glad to hear you liked Chiang Mai as much as I do. You’ll be happy to know that the smog has already started to dissipate. As you probably know, it occurs when farmers burn the fields, and most of it drifts down from Myanmar. But fortunately, it only lasts about six weeks every year. By the time you return, the skies will be blue again. Unfortunately, I’ll be gone when you return, so we won’t have a chance to meet. Will be traveling until the beginning of July.

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  9. Barbara, it appears that you and I made the same decision at the same time. I just returned to Seattle to tie up some loose ends and I\’ll be back in early fall. Maybe we can continue our conversation at the Cozy Cafe. I\’ve looked far and wide and Chiang Mai just fills my soul with happiness. So pleased for you! Your apartment is lovely and I can picture that view from your deck with a morning coffee. Thanks so much for sharing your superb writing and photography over the years. Look forward to catching up with you again.

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    • Hi Mary! How wonderful for you. I’m sure you’ll be just as happy here long-term as I am. No doubt in my mind that I’ve made the right decision. I don’t know my exact schedule yet, but I’ll be back in July for a few weeks, then on the road again beginning in late August. Should be returning to Chiang Mai for the winter sometime in late October, so do look me up at that point and we’ll reconnoiter at Cozy and exchange notes. BTW, my Thai is coming along fairly well. At last I’m stating to hear the “tones.”

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  10. Hi Barbara,

    I am in awe of your life story! Just wow! Inspiring and beautiful. Congratulations on your new apartment in charming Chiang Mai. I\’m eager to read your upcoming trips; safe travels 🙂

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  11. Wow! This is amazing. I saw it on FB the other day, but only just had time to sit and really read it. To everything there is a season, no? I’ve noticed several travel bloggers seem to have chosen bases recently. When I was young I thought that I would be a gypsy, but I learned that I need a place (even if not a specific house or apartment) to come back to, usually at about the 8 month stage, oddly. But I always thought that you would settle in Pokhara. Do you mind if I ask why Chiang Mai over Pokhara? Wishing you much luck and happiness in your new abode!

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    • Hi Linda: Really an interesting question. You know that I am very connected to Nepal. But my other love has always been Thailand. I first visited in 2002 and fell in love with the country. After recreating myself as a travel writer, I spent the next 11+ years traveling the world to see if I could find any place I liked better than Thailand. I was smitten with Nepal, and the local family who “adopted” me in Pokhara had a great deal to do with that. However, in the end, I returned to Thailand. While I will always love Nepal and often make return visits, as I got older I realized I needed a bit more comfort than Nepal could provide. Things are definitely improving. There are no longer 16 hour per day electric outages and fuel is now readily available. But it is still a developing country with its share of hardships, the worst of which is lack of heat in the homes. My bones ache when I get too cold, so I really can’t be there December through February. Plus, Thailand is close enough that I can visit quite affordably, so it works out well.

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    • Thanks so much Laura Lee. It is wonderful, and believe me, I know how blessed I am to be able to live the life I love. Do let me know if you ever decide to revisit Chiang Mai 🙂

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  12. Barb,

    I can’t tell you how happy I am for you! You have enriched so many souls on your Life’s journey – in each of your careers. Your latest venture has undoubtedly had the greatest impact, as we have lived vicariously while you followed your dream. You have opened our eyes to so many wonders.

    I am delighted that you have found a “home-base” (and how lovely!) but still haven’t given up your traipsing! Once again, you are courageously following your heart.

    Be happy. Be safe.

    Love to you, dear friend.
    Vonnie

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    • Oh Vonnie! It’s so good to hear from you and John. I think of you every now and then – especially during the holiday as I’ve been missing your annual poetic updates over the last couple of years. So glad you are still traveling and reading my blog. That means so very much to me. Sending loads of love your way. xoxo

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  13. Hello Barbara!
    We’ve been following your adventures for several years, in our 3rd year of nomadic living and are thinking of “planting some temporary roots” for a few months. We were last in Thailand the day the King died and decided to move on to Indonesia. We did not visit Chaing Mai but knew we’d return. The suites look like an ideal place for us to park for a few months in early 2019. Perhaps we’ll see you?

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    • Hi Toni: I’m sure you’d love Chiang Mai. Be sure to let me know if you’re headed this way and I’d love to meet up.

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  14. Congratulations Barbara! Sarah and I have been doing extensive travel from a home base for several years, and we have loved it. It is nice to have a base to come home to, and I know you will like it too! We are now in Portugal; please let us know if you are ever this way!

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    • Hi Jonathan and Sarah: I’ve been to Portugal (Cascais, Estoril), but it’s one of the places on my list to revisit. I never properly visited Lisbon and have never been to Porto or Sentra. I need to do that. I’ll definitely let you know when and if I come, though it most likely won’t be until next year.

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  15. How lovely to hear about you putting down roots.
    I’ll bet you wish you had paintings and ‘stuff’ for your lovely new apartment now.
    We have Asia pencilled in again possibly for next Winter so will look you up.
    Sarah and I now have a yacht in Greece and go there to Lefkada in the early and late season each year. On our way there we go via Meteora so let us know when you go maybe we will meet again there.
    It was also lovely that you considered Bulgaria, from your stay with us here in Sozopol.
    Good Luck with your new life.
    All Our Love
    Martin and Sarah xxx
    PS We have a lovely Scottish friend Elsie Evans who has a studio and art retreat in Rayong in Thailand so maybe you will meet her too one day, she has been an ex-pat there for many years.

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    • Hi Martin and Sarah! How wonderful to hear from you. I had a laugh over your comment about “stuff” – one of my biggest fears about putting down roots was that I would once again begin to collect stuff. Thankfully, that hasn’t happened. I’ve acquired a few things that make my place comfortable, but have no interest in wall hangings or souvenirs, etc. Do look me up if you get to Chiang Mai. It would be absolutely wonderful to reconnect. I do plan to be in Greece in late May, but think most of that time I will be on a press trip, so there probably won’t be an opportunity to connect, at least not this year. Hugs and loads of love to you both.

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  16. I am so happy for you with your choices of the heart and personal freedom. I love looking and reading at whatever you send out and the stories that go with them involving your personal journey. The fact that you are female and travel on your own and all that you are and do, to me, is a true living of what the Divine Feminine is in such a balanced way. I see you as embodying your own divine masculine and feminine selves in a very balanced way. It is beautiful to behold. Thank you so much. I send this message to you from my high heart to yours.

    May unlimited custom-tailored blessings fill you and surround you in every moment of your life’s journey. Thank you so much for the blessings you provide everyone,

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    • Hello Maraine. What a lovely comment! I have often thought that my personality is quite balanced between the masculine and feminine energies and I am so thankful for that. Perhaps it is what gives me the ability to travel without fear, yet still be connected to the energy of the universe. Many blessing back, from my heart to yours.

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