Chiang Mai’s Nimman: The Unapologetic Bubble

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In the 10 years since I last visited Chiang Mai, it has become the Digital Nomad Centre of the Universe. 10 years ago, the term “digital nomad” hadn’t even been dreamt up, even though I was unwittingly embodying that moniker. Now, it’s a thing, and Chiang Mai is the capital.

See also: How 8 Digital Nomads Have Survived the Pandemic

Chiang Mai is the Digital Nomad Centre of the Universe, and the neighbourhood of Nimman is the capital thereof. In two months of living in Nimman, I explored what makes Nimman the thriving bubble that it is today, for better or worse. #ChiangMai #Nimman #Thailand #ThailandTravel #DigitalNomads #FullTimeTravel #TravelPlanning #BudgetTravel #TravelTips #TravelLifestyleGuides #ExpatLife #LocationIndependence

And the headquarters within this capital city of digital nomadism is the neighbourhood of Nimman (short for Nimmanhaemin, which is the main street in the area, better known as “Nimman road”). Although I’m sure it existed when I last was in Chiang Mai, I’m willing to bet it wasn’t recognizable to what it is now. A few months prior I was in Ubud (Bali, Indonesia), and sampling my first taste of the digital nomad co-working culture (for somebody who has been called a “pioneer” in the industry, I was mighty late to the party). I wanted to continue this exploration in Chiang Mai.

So, Nimman it was.

CAMP coworking space, Nimman, Chiang Mai
CAMP: A cafe and coworking space in the heart of Nimman that caters to both University students and digital nomads.

Nimman, Created

I’m not exactly sure how Nimman came to be the place it is now. My guess is that it was a trifecta of factors:

  1. Nimman is by the University of Chiang Mai. Thus, it is (and probably always was to an extent), a hip and progressive neighbourhood, to keep up with the next generation as it dreams big and comes of age into adulthood.
  2. Chiang Mai is developed enough to have infrastructure for things like fast internet, with a cost of living that is affordable for the vast majority of digital nomads who can use currency arbitrage to their advantage. Much of Nimman is new development, which provides a modern look, feel, and most importantly, modern conveniences and comforts (for a fraction of the price that the same amenities would cost in the western world).
  3. In 2012, a popular movie came out in China called Lost in Thailand, which featured (among other places) the University of Chiang Mai campus. It has since sparked a tidal wave of Chinese tourists to the area. Apparently they would take tours through the University grounds on tacky “tourist road trains”; something that eventually met with protests on the part of the university students who felt like zoo animals. The Chinese “tourist train” itself may or may not still be operational in the Chiang Mai University grounds, but it sure is proverbially active in Nimman.
One Nimman, Chiang Mai
Much of Nimman’s development has happened in the last 10 years. This plaza (called One Nimman Chiang Mai) features a bizarre overpriced duty-free walkthrough, upscale market stalls, and entertainment like salsa classes and light shows.

I read this fascinating article about Nimman, and the evolution of digital nomadism. It romantically draws parallels between the digital nomad generation of the 2010s and the bohemians of the 1930s, the beats of the 50s, and the hippies of the 70s. It also parallels Nimman with artsy progressive hipster trendy hoods like London’s Soho, Saint-Germain in Paris and the Mission district in San Francisco.

I’m glad I read the article shortly after arriving, because it shed a more favourable light on the place than I was initially inclined to adopt; if I compare Nimman to the Chiang Mai I knew 10 years ago, all I could sense was the unpleasant air of gentrification. Although it appeared that Nimman was just as populated by Thai people as by foreigners, it felt a bit too much like a bubble.

Maya shopping centre, Chiang Mai, Nimman
What’s wrong with this picture? A chamber quartet, playing in front of a giant Christmas Tree, in a Buddhist country…

Nimman, The (Unapologetic) Bubble

But who am I to judge the bubble. I (desperately) needed a bubble. After hitting critical mass in India, I needed some creature comforts, and given that my online business was still struggling, I didn’t have the means to enjoy them just anywhere.

I was also really curious to see what all the hubbub was about in Chiang Mai, and to tap into the community of digital nomads that has developed since I last visited. In my two months in Chiang Mai, I met more online colleagues and friends in person than I have collectively in my last 11 years on the road.

“Friends, food, and cheap cost of living. In that order.”

This is what a digital nomad friend of mine said she likes about Chiang Mai before I’d even finished asking the question. I couldn’t argue with her; that’s exactly what Chiang Mai (and Nimman in particular) offers digital nomads.

Lurk the thriving Chiang Mai Digital Nomads Facebook group and you’ll find a well-populated schedule of meetups, parties, games nights, mastermind workshops, courses, visa and accommodation advice, and more. Choose from the ever-increasing number of co-working spaces to get some concentrated work done, if the free (fast) wifi at any one of the dozens of upscale coffee shops and cafes doesn’t appeal.

Grab a cheap and ridiculously delicious Thai meal for $1.50; or a more expensive (like, $6-10) meal at the hundreds of trendy restaurants of almost every cuisine.

And then go home to your fully furnished and well-appointed condo (with a gym and pool and in walking distance of everything you could possibly need) that you’re paying $400/month or less for.

It’s very possible to live a ridiculously comfortable, healthy, and social life as a digital nomad in Chiang Mai (specifically in Nimman).

latte art
This cafe (called Ristr8to) has repeatedly won the world championships for latte art. Lattes sure aren’t Thai, but like many things, they’ve dominated the art (pun intended).

No wonder Chiang Mai is the Digital Nomad Centre of the Universe. Perhaps it is a bubble; but if it is, it is unapologetically so. Unlike other places, it doesn’t feel exploitative to me (neither exploitative of foreigners, nor of locals). I don’t sense the resentment towards foreigners that I’ve sensed by locals in so many developing countries where rising prices due to influxes of expats have actually forced locals to move away. Frankly, I’m not even sure it’s accurate to call Thailand a developing country any more.

Instead I’ve felt embraced by Thailand, and by the fiercely proud and independent Thai people.

Nimman appears to be a collective creation; one that suits digital nomads, university students, Thai entrepreneurs, an ever-increasing middle class, and Chinese tourists alike.

But….

Before we cue in the marching band and flag-waving parade, there is one wee little crack in this façade of bohemian joy. Perhaps it’s a fatal flaw that comes with all cities once they hit a certain size. Perhaps it’s the cultural and linguistic divide between Asia and the West. Or perhaps it’s a function of the very demographics and infrastructure of Chiang Mai, and more specifically, Nimman. I suspect it’s a bit of all three.

Much as I felt truly embraced by the Thai people and their never ending smiles at the primitive and basic Thai pleasantries I stuttered at them while ordering my food or browsing their stores, two months after arriving I didn’t feel any more connected with the Thai culture or people. I hadn’t made one single solitary Thai friend. Not only did I not find my friend TJ, but I didn’t meet any other TJs.

Chiang Mai has become a place where everybody is welcomed with open arms, to coexist in peace. But there is a big difference between coexisting and integrating.

The majority of the digital nomads I met who “live” in Chiang Mai (often returning for a few months every year) have made almost no attempt to learn to speak Thai. I’m equally as guilty; when I first visited Chiang Mai 10 years ago, I made a significantly more pronounced effort to learn and speak Thai. This time, I didn’t need to (and I had my own melodramatic story of exhaustion and personal health issues to deal with), so I got lazy. I wanted a place to just relax and enjoy some creature comforts and the company of some digital nomad (aka foreigner) friends.

I didn’t make any Thai friends because I made zero effort to. I may as well have been on the moon, and not in Thailand, save for the ridiculously delicious cuisine to remind me of where I was.

I have lived in international cities like Chiang Mai (and communities within like Nimman) before. I spent two years in Pisac Peru, where spiritual seekers the world round congregate to “be spiritual” and live inexpensively. I stayed in Cuenca and Vilcabamba, in Ecuador. I spent time in Ubud, Bali. In Peru especially, it used to ire me to no end how people couldn’t be bothered to learn Spanish, citing reasons like “I’m too old” or “it’s too hard” or “everybody speaks English anyway, there’s no chance to practice” – all of which are terrible excuses.

And yet, in Chiang Mai, I was “that foreigner”.

Christmas tree at Maya Shopping Centre, Nimman, Chiang Mai

New World Culture?

Or perhaps I’m just a dinosaur. Perhaps our world culture is becoming increasingly global, along with economies and lifestyles. In just a few years it is projected that 40% of the workforce in America will have location independent careers. Thailand has recently followed Estonia in the development of “digital currencies”, and is among the ranks of an increasing number of countries developing special long-term/residency visas to welcome digital nomads.

In Chiang Mai, to accommodate visitors from around the world, English has become a centrally accessible language, and is visible (and audible) everywhere. It’s not like this makes it universally easy for foreigners; German and French and Italian and Chinese and Scandinavian (and many more) visitors still have to speak a foreign language (English) to get by.

When we were approaching Y2K (“year 2000” for young’uns who don’t remember that tenuous turn of the clock into the new century), China was big news, with its ridiculously high GDP and international/industrial/technological/economic progress. Word on the street was that we would all be speaking Chinese inside of 10 years.

I don’t doubt that China is still a contender for top dog, but 18 years later this blog is still in English, and in Thailand (where hoards of Chinese tourists flock every year), they have to speak English to get by.

With more and more people traveling (many with careers and lifestyles enabling them to do it for longer periods than ever before), perhaps we are entering a new age and time; one more globalized than I ever could have imagined. And language is just one barometer with which to understand what is happening.

If Nimman in Chiang Mai is any indication, the world is getting smaller by the second. My hope is that the convenience of globalization doesn’t whitewash individual cultures to the point where we all live in cultural obscurity and anonymity. Because then, what would be the point of traveling at all?

In Case You Missed It…

Chiang Mai, 10 Years Later – The Impossible Search

Where to Stay in Chiang Mai

If you want to rent an apartment (like) I did, then read this: How to Find an Apartment in Chiang Mai: A Step by Step Guide

If you’re looking for something a bit more short-term, then check out these awesome Chiang Mai accommodation deals: 

Booking.com

Things to do in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai and the surrounding area is jam-packed with cool things to do. Click around here for some inspiration:

Nimman in Chiang Mai Thailand is a very curious neighborhood. Check it out! #ChiangMai #Nimman #Thailand #Asia #editorial #TheProfessionalHobo #travel #Asiatravel #expatlife #traveltips #digitalnomad
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19 thoughts on “Chiang Mai’s Nimman: The Unapologetic Bubble”

  1. 40% of the workforce with location independent work & (if you believe what you hear) 50% of the jobs replaced by robots/AI it’s going to be an interesting time.

    Reply
    • Rob,
      Ha ha – skeptical, are we? I don’t suppose that 40% of the workforce will actually be roaming the world as digital nomads, but instead will have the ABILITY to work from anywhere. For most people, that place will be home, where they can mind the kids and enjoy less commuting time.

      Reply
  2. Interesting Nora. On and off, I have spent a year in Chiang Mai alone, between some 6 trips. We have been in the US since May, but back to Chiang Mai a week from Sunday. Excited! I have never been to the Nimman area because the first 4 trips were to stay at Chiang Mai Riverside Condominiums, on the southern side of the city. Last year we headed to Pong Noi, a tiny village bordering Doi Suthep National Park, and we will be there in a little over a week again.

    I enjoy the creature comforts sometimes; especially after traveling through an intense country like India 😉

    Ryan

    Reply
    • Hey Ryan,
      Indeed – After India, Thailand in general (and Nimman in Chiang Mai specifically) was a breath of fresh air! Enjoy your return visit to CM!

      Reply
  3. Interesting post about the difference between integration into a culture and co-existing. We try our hardest to learn as many words as possible when in a new country or revisiting one. We are in our 3rd year of housesitting in Europe.
    Unfortunately, we are one of those couples that do not find it easy to learn a new language. Having said that we have had no trouble living for months on end in communities where English is nearly non-existent. Hands are wonderful tools 🙂

    Reply
    • Hey Suz,
      You got it! There’s much more to communication than just words. Having said that, I’m currently in Vietnam (where the tonal language makes it extremely difficult to utter even the most basic of phrases and be understood), and it’s a bit alienating on the whole. At least most locals understand how hard it is, and thus my horrendous attempts are at least appreciated. 😉

      Reply
  4. I think the divide is much more than language. So many visitors to Thailand rave about how all Thai people are so friendly and always smile. But that’s got to be BS. There is no race on earth that is always happy, never has a bad day, never gets a headache or a period cramp.

    There’s money in putting on that mask and the majority of visitors don’t ever want to see beyond it. But the flipside of that cheap cost of living is a huge disparity in what locals have and earn and the financial situation of foreigners. Sure, the locals might make a lot more out of giving a massage or making a smoothie for foreigners than they’d ever be able to charge locals but that means they are going to play the game, be the happy, smiling Thais you want to see.

    I haven’t spent a lot of time in Thailand but for me, that divide shows itself so often, always being called ‘missus’ and being treated with excessive politeness isn’t always about good customer service, it’s putting a very thick wall up.

    Reply
    • Hi Kathryn,
      You bring up some interesting points about the façade that people in Thailand maintain to appease (and do business with) foreigners.

      But this isn’t just Thailand – this is everywhere, in countries developed and developing. I would argue, in fact, that it’s the hospitality industry.
      The difference being, in some countries more than others, that smiling pleasant façade feels more authentic or friendly. In some developing countries, it smells of desperation. Other countries and cultures are stoic. Others yet are downright rude, despite a reliance on tourist dollars.

      While I agree with you that most travelers see smiling Thai faces and don’t choose to see beyond it, I would also suggest that (given my own experiences), the Thai people are more genuinely authentically friendly than many other countries and cultures, which is why/how they’ve earned their moniker as the land of smiles.

      Reply
  5. Reality here.

    Most of these “digital nomads” never make a single USD.

    And coding whilst you are roamin’?

    Nah, this does not work. The competition from office workers who can work in a team and have personal contact with other members is overwhelming. Even if you have personal contact after having worked in a company, unless that contact is maintained by visits six months later there is no work coming your way. And certainly never, ever, any hope of promotion.

    Sorry guys.

    This digital nomad life is a no go-er for 99.99% of those dreamers who think it will work.

    Reply
    • Hi Bob,
      Judging by the comments you have left on this and another post, I would guess that you’re new to this website.

      While I agree that the digital nomad lifestyle isn’t for everybody, and that it’s certainly not easy, I would argue that it’s not nearly as impossible as you seem to think.

      My entire Financial Case Study series is filled with dozens (currently 66) case studies of people who are living mostly as digital nomads, and most of them are able to fully support their lifestyles with it. https://www.theprofessionalhobo.com/category/financial-case-studies/

      Reply
      • Hi Nora,

        Thanks for the reply.

        I am sure that there are a few thousand who support themselves in this way. A lot more try and fail. And I would indeed recommend that people should travel for a year or two.

        But it is so easy to get wrapped up in this lifestyle that people do not realise the opportunity cost. There are little things like

        – creating a family and having babies
        – adequate pension
        – building up assets such as a house
        – having a well paid career job

        If people swam about the globe until they are 35 plus, these become almost unattainable.

        Those that make it a success, and I guess I am in that class along with you, now 18 years of no fixed abode, have already put in the work and did not head off until fairly financially secure.

        However it was also alarmingly evident that after a couple of years I would no longer be able to re-enter the workforce at any reasonable level.

        Reply
        • Hi Bob,
          I agree with everything you say here, and you touch upon a number of interesting factors that have come into my own mind recently, which I’m mulling over and figuring out how to write about in a more dedicated article.
          And I, like you, am very glad that I got my financial house in order (including nest eggs, retirement savings, etc) before leaving to travel and changing my career accordingly.

          But I would also say that in this ever-changing work climate (I’ve been reading some studies lately that are showing how the trend towards telecommuting/freelancing is aggressively increasing), and with proper life and lifestyle planning (very important), you CAN still have kids, save for retirement, buy property, etc from the road. And, there are a number of digital nomads who are doing all of these things, very well I might add.

          As more and more people embrace the digital nomad lifestyle, I for one am noticing that the “lifestyle” is taking more and more different forms.

          The people who try and fail at it are the people who think it’s easy….some sort of free ticket to full-time travel. Like “Hey! I’m going to start a travel blog to pay for all my travels for as long as I want! And, I leave in two months.” People who don’t take online careers seriously as a business are the people who fail, in my opinion.

          Reply
          • Hi Nora,

            You nailed it with

            “People who don’t take online careers seriously as a business are the people who fail”

            Making a business successful is hard. Very hard.

            This is not some, ” ‘work’ two hours a day” and then have fun and relax in the tropics doddle.

            It requires more than a full time job in terms of effort and dedication.

            There is no government safety net ready to catch those who don’t make it.

  6. Good piece Nora. I’ve lived in Chiangmai on and off for several years. And there is no doubt that Nimman is very much a bubble (for better or worse).

    The thing about Nimman is that it’s most certainly not representative of Chiangmai as a whole, not by a long shot. It’s more expensive, touristy, and far more westernized than most other parts of the city. One would only have to wander a tiny distance to adjacent neighborhoods to find a very different experience.

    Unfortunately the large majority of digital nomads congregate around Nimman and many rarely live in or explore other parts of the city in any depth. I’m routinely shocked at how little some nomads seem to know about the culture and the city they live in. This makes it far easier to sink into the bubble, spend 99% of your time with other foreigners, and miss most of the local culture entirely.

    I never related to the (mostly much younger) nomad crowd, but that’s worked to my advantage. Most of my friends here are Thais and long-term expats, I speak decent Thai and I feel at least somewhat integrated.

    I hope more DNs give themselves the chance to integrate even a bit more than most do. It’s made my life here infinitely more enriched and connected.

    Reply
    • Hi James,
      Good for you for learning to speak Thai and venturing out of the comfortable bubble that is the Nimman area. I think the motives of many DNs for living there (and many expats in general, in many countries with weaker currencies) is less about integrating with the culture, and more about getting more bang for their buck.

      I don’t know if you’ve read my article about various ironies of expat communities around the world, but it goes hand in hand with this article and I suspect you’d find it interesting: https://www.theprofessionalhobo.com/the-irony-of-expat-life-pros-and-cons/

      Reply
  7. Hi Nora,
    Thomas from Texas…retired. In your experience, is it possible to travel full time on a $4K a month retirement check. A friend and I are thinking about becoming full time expats in South America. Have really enjoyed reading about your experiences…and hope to one day very soon begin my own journey.

    Reply
  8. Nora, a great article about the pros & cons of the digital nomad life in Chiang Mai. Sadly, it’s not even a shadow of its former bustling self as a DN/expat haven. We had the good fortune to live there from June 2016 to February 2017, when the good times were rolling indeed. Plenty of DN interesting group meetings, flourishing writing group meetings, expat tours, expat breakfasts & a lively social scene for westerners of all ages. Sadly, CM is a ghost town now with few DNs or expats living there. And we cannot blame it on the Coronapocalypse either – it was deserted in 2019 when I re-visited CM. The empty streets are downright spooky. The reason for the mass exodus is because the Thai govt has clamped down on visa renewal for all foreigners. I’m surprised that it’s even being mentioned these days as a DN hub. And the locals have never been particularly interested in making friends with the foreigners. They blatantly milk the foreigners and are not particularly interested in getting to know them. Nice story, Nora!

    Reply
    • Hi Roy,
      My understanding is that Chiang Mai’s digital nomad population swells (and shrinks) greatly depending on the season.
      Also you’re right about the visa situation, however as I understand it they are developing a special visa just for remote workers and digital nomads. I can’t imagine Chiang Mai will ever lose its stature as a digital nomad hub. But I’m fascinated by the dichotomy of your experiences between 2016/17 and 2019.

      Reply

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