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. Congratulations, Barbara!
    I’m glad you’ve followed your heart and decided to settle in the place you love, Chang Mai. It’s been calling and waiting for you.
    Your apartment and surroundings look really beautiful.
    Looking forward to reading of your travel adventures during 2018.
    Wishing you to be comfortable, happy and health.

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    • Thanks so much Linda and Ken. It was a tough decision – I am so commitment phobic. But after just a few short months I know it was the right one.

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    • Thank you Jan. It is a wonderful new adventure and I’m happy to say I’m thoroughly enjoying Chiang Mai, but then, I never doubted I would. Travel coming up soon, though, so stay tuned.

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    • Hi Vera: Had a laugh over your comment. Never fear, these feet are too itchy for me to stay in one place too long.

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  2. Very exciting! I will definitely keep following you. Sounds like you’ve got some great trips lined up. Having a home base is so nice to come home to. Congrats!

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      • Thank you for sharing your inspirational story … and congratulations for proving it’s still possible to attain our dreams, no matter our age or specific challenges. You GO girl and keep up the wonderful work/play!

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  3. I didn’t know about the one year retirement visas in Thailand – I’ve just added Thailand to my list of possible places to retire to! Will you be writing more posts about setting up as a long-term resident/expat in Thailand?

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    • Hi Anne: Hadn’t anticipated writing a story about long-term living in Thailand, but it’s not a bad idea. Might wait until I’ve been here a year, though. But the process isn’t hard, and there are agencies to help you if you don’t want to tackle it on your own.

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    • Hi Jane and Duncan: Would love to get together again, someday, somewhere. Are you planning to return to Thailand by any chance?

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  4. Woot! Good for you, Barbara. (And good for me, too, perhaps, as I’ve never visited Chiang Mai or anywhere in Thailand and who better to show me around that you!) So happy for you, my friend!

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  5. Congrats, Barbara! It sounds like you’ve made the right decision for you and your place looks amazing!

    I’m sorry I wasn’t able to make it to Chaing Mai to hike and get together. I think I’ll be back next winter so hopefully we can connect then. Bhutan and Bangkok were amazing, but I will definitely allow for more than me to explore Thailand next time.

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  6. I appreciate your candor about knees and pain of traveling. I just retired and want to travel and I am starting next week in Spain. I know I waited to late and already have knee pain if I walk more than 2 miles a day. I also just met a new friend while at a Photography conference in Baltimore and she is taking an early retirement to Thailand. Must be a wonderful place for you to stop for a rest there. Keep us posted on your local adventures.

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    • Thanks Anne, I certainly will keep you posted. Thailand is a fantastic place to retire. And believe me when I say it’s never too late. Just get those knees looked at and fixed. It will give you a new lease on life.

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  7. Beautiful apartment, Barbara! I wish you all the very best in this exciting new chapter of your life!

    Thailand holds a special place in my heart as my now wife and I of 13 years met back up there after first meeting in a hostel in Brugge, Belgium.

    But we haven’t been back to Thailand since 2004 and didn’t make it to Chiang Mai. Chiang Mai’s been on my list a long time given it’s become such a digital hub.

    Thanks for the inspiring post on moving to Chiang Mai! When I visit someday, would love to grab a drink with you if you’re around! 😀

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    • Anytime Alex! You missed the best place in Thailand. Chiang Mai is truly the cultural capital of the country. Hope you make it back one day and we’ll grab a cup of coffee.

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  8. Barbara, that is a really lovely story, open and honest. I also love Chiang Mai and have met a few people who have chosen to make it their home. My husband Dave and I are homeless nomads as well and we’ve considered Chiang Mai as a possible future base. What you’re doing is wonderful. Sue x

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  9. Looks like a fabulous place to have your home base and the apartment looks cozy and comfortable. I think you are making a good choice to continue your travels but be able to “come home” between trips. I’ll keep following you along your brave path.
    Love,
    Maryann

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    • Thank you Marryann. I really appreciate you and Dave being such loyal followers. Hope you and the family are all doing well and loving life. xo

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  10. This sounds like a good decision to me. I have spent a fair bit of time in Chiang Mai myself over the years, since 1977. I have good friends who have retired there. If you are at all interested in quilting as art, Karen teaches classes. http://www.karensengel.com/ If not, she sells her beautiful art, maybe one small thing for your new home.

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    • Hi Deborah: I’m afraid I have absolutely no creative talent outside of writing and photography. But I do appreciate people who do. Perhaps I will look her up one day. Thanks so much.

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  11. I love this post. I remember sitting in the Red Sky Cafe in Duck in 2004, as you were about to embark on your first adventure to Thailand. My favorite spot on earth! I am in awe of how you have embraced travel and life and shared it with us. Thank you. Much love, Ellie

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    • It would never have happened without you Ellie. Do you remember how nervous I was before I headed out? You were my mentor and my role model then, and you still are today.You have no idea how grateful I am to have you in my life. Lots of love to you.

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    • 26,000 baht per month, which is currently about $840 USD based on the current exchange rate. But if you pay the entire year’s rent up front, you get one free month. That includes wifi, but water and electric are on top of the rent, however utilities are quite cheap here.

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  12. I travel about 7 months out of the year but when I’m “home” the place I feel most nostalgic for is Thailand. I’m a big fan of Chiang Mai so I know the feeling. Last year tho I fell in love with Old Town Phuket where I spent two months – spent alot of time with the urban sketchers there. I always enjoy your posts – particularly Nepal – still on my bucket list – only been to Lumbini.

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    • Hi Danielle: I was surprised when you said you loved Phuket. It’s not my favorite place in Thailand, but I haven’t been to the Old Town area. I’ll have to check it out. And as for Nepal, I’m sure you’ll fall in love with it too – everyone does!

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  13. Gutsy! Totally changes your perspective – I look forward to your musings and imagery as they morph with your new reality! It feels very positve.

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    • Hi Chris: There are so many places to choose from. Last year I looked at 35 developments and there are constantly new ones going up. You just need to walk into them and ask to see apartments.

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  14. A good choice I think! That retirement visa is looking very attractive to me too, I’m 51 and I think my husband and kids can piggy back on my retired status, but not for a while yet. Vietnam is home, Chiang Mai is home, London is home and Romania ( Breb) is home. The house we currently own in Port Douglas, Australia, is not home and is on the market. I have no idea at this stage where we’ll truly settle because the choice is too hard. Love your flat and I hear you about knees and hips, it’s catching up with me a bit these days too. I know I have to get to Everest Base Camp with some urgency now. Enjoy!

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    • Thanks Alyson: I know exactly how you feel. I feel at home in Croatia, Budapest, and Bulgaria, just not in the U.S. I finally realized that just because I have an apartment in one place doesn’t mean I have to be here all the time. I still plan to be on the road 4-5 months a year.Sounds like you could do something like that as well.

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  15. Hi Barbara,

    Awesome! So cool seeing your apartment on your blog after we hung out last month. Beautiful place. I admire you, your blog, your lifestyle and the bold choices you made to live a life of freedom in the fun town of Chiang Mai, one of my fave places on earth.

    We are loving New Zealand so far. Most beautiful country I have seen in person.

    Ryan

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    • Hi Ryan: Thank you so much for those kind comments. Glad you’re loving New Zealand. I absolutely agree – it’s one of the most gorgeous places on earth.

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  16. I like chaing mei to
    last 10 months in lake toba north sumatra
    back to my house in sanur Bali at the end of the month
    warm regards
    john kelly

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  17. Most people can’t figure out what they really want to do, let alone actually doing it. Congrats to you for making good on your promise to yourself after your illness – and congrats on your new apartment. I look forward to reading about your travels this year along with your home base in Thailand.

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    • Thanks so much for your comment Jill, and thanks to being a loyal reader. I am indeed fortunate to have found my true path in life.

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