Cambodia · Expat · Thailand

Chiang Mai versus Siem Reap: an expat weighs in

Chiang Mai ,Thailand (L) versus Siem Reap, Cambodia (R) roads.

Folks have been asking for this one for a long time, but I never felt ready until my latest Thailand visit. Originally, I was going to do a Thailand versus Cambodia post, but then I realized both countries can be quite varied depending on where you are at. So, it made more sense to compare cities rather than countries.

Background

Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai, 2014.

I lived in Chiang Mai starting in 2009 for about four and a half years until I left for Chiang Rai. I’m also half-Thai and my mother’s family lives near Chiang Mai, so I know CM much better than Siem Reap, hence my hesitation to compare both places.

Bayon at Angkor Archaeological Park, 2015.

However, I am a few months away from my two year anniversary in Siem Reap. We moved here mid- 2015 and as of now, we don’t have any plans to leave. Of course, life can change at a drop of rice paddy hat…

Overall

Chiang Mai street art has taken off in recent years, 2017.

It seems almost unfair to compare both places because CM is much larger (960,000 people in the metro area in 2008 versus a population of 230,000 for Siem Reap during the same year) and it’s more developed. But not everyone wants a large city, and CM is no longer that mid-sized, just-right town in the North. It’s quite big these days with lots of road work, non-stop construction and development complete with pollution and traffic.

CM pretty much has it all though, and that’s why it is an expat stronghold and has been for decades.

Siem Reap, and my life, under construction, 2015.

Siem Reap, on the other hand is recently taking off. If you were here years ago visiting Angkor Wat, you’d be in for a surprise because SR, like many Asian cities, is developing, growing and construction-mad. And even though it’s still quite small in comparison to CM, more expats seem to be discovering it. Part of the reason for this is Thailand has been under military rule and has been making a lot of changes that have made it more difficult for expats to stay. So, neighboring countries have seen an influx of expats, like us, who left Thailand for calmer waters.

Food

A heaping plate of delicious pad Thai, 2017.

I’ve realized food is so important. When I was in Ecuador, the food didn’t agree with me. Plus, I thought the food was bland and boring. I missed the spiciness and flavors of Thai food which is one of the reasons why I returned. The CM food scene has always been amazing, and it’s continuing to get even more international and trendy. I love the street food and the wide range of prices for damned good eats.

Fried spring rolls, pumpkin and tofu and yellow noodles, oh my, Siem Reap, 2017.

In SR, foreigners can own businesses so you will find many expat-owned hotels, shops and restaurants. Throw in the draw of Angkor Wat and you’ve got an automatic international cuisine scene which is impressive for a town of this size.

CM has McDonalds, KFC, Subway, Burger King, Starbucks, etc. You get the idea. Whereas, SR only has KFC and Burger King (and the latter was a recent addition).

I won’t lie, I miss Thai food. I like spicy food. Khmer food is alright, but I don’t love it like Thai food. You pay a little more for food in SR, but the Reap has some really lovely restaurants, and since I cook at home, too, I’m overall content.

Bottom line: Depending on what you are looking for or want, both cities offer a variety of great food options.

Shopping

Kad Suan Kaew [Chiang Mai, 2009]
Even the ancient Kad Suan Kaew beats any mall I’ve seen in Cambodia (Chiang Mai, 2009).
CM wins, hands down. With the opening of Central Festival, they really took the cake and the silverware, and they were already winning. It’s just that Central Fest has Marks and Spencer’s, H&M, UNIGLO, Mango, and even a Cold Stone Creamery. CM also has department stores, used English bookstores, the Saturday and Sunday Walking Street, cleaner outdoor markets, local food projects and so much more.

Old Market area Siem Reap
The Old Market area, Siem Reap, 2015.

SR has the sad Lucky Mall which houses a handful of shops and made me weep for Thailand when I saw it. Even small town Chiang Rai has a decent shopping plaza. There are no ‘walking street markets’ (there are outdoor markets, sure, but it’s not the same), heck, days after we arrived, SR opened their first ever movie theatre. Wow, right? The outdoor markets here are dirty, hot and stressful enterprises, but I’m sure some expats find them fresh out of NatGeo or something and are delighted.

Whenever I’ve visited family and friends in Thailand, I gone on massive shopping sprees to compensate. And it works. Not having a big shopping mall (not yet, coming soon?) in SR keeps me from spending money frivolously. Although, I will say, SR holds its own quite nicely with grocery stores.

No 7-11s means supporting local mini marts. Angkor Market, Asia Market, Thai Hout and even Lucky Supermarket are all good places to enjoy the A/C and find food from all over the world. We really enjoy our grocery shopping here. Good bread, too.

Bottom line: CM is a shopper’s paradise. SR is a minimalists’.

Accommodation

My first apt near Payap University, Chiang Mai, 2009.

I lived in five different places in CM and only two in SR. I’ve lived in different neighborhoods and had both expat and local landlords in CM. In Siem Reap, only Khmer landlords and in two nearby areas.

In general, I’d say CM has the sheer volume to suit anyone’s needs and SR is limited. It can be hard to find a good place to live in Siem Reap and much depends on your budget and if you have transportation. For a one bedroom in both places, we paid about 10,000 baht or $300 USD.

Additional reading:

Chiang Mai Apartment Living
Tips for Finding an Apartment in Siem Reap

Bottom line: CM has more variety than SR.

Language

It says, “Don’t cause yourself unnecessary suffering through your mind” – or something like that, Chiang Mai, 2014.

According to the bf, Khmer is easier to learn because it doesn’t have tones. I studied Thai longer, so it’s easier for me – and frankly I haven’t put in the time to study Khmer. (This needs to change!)

Locals also speak better English in Siem Reap than in Chiang Mai. Both towns are tourist meccas so I don’t know why this is the case. Khmers might be hungrier to learn. They aren’t as comfortably insulated as Thais. Whatever the reason, it makes my job as an English teacher interesting either way.

Bottom line: Both languages are fun to learn, they have some similarities, but Thai is more difficult because of the tones.

Transportation

Hey, the desk I want won’t fit in the tuk-tuk! Well, why not put it on the roof! (Chiang Mai, 2013).

So the big thing right now in Thailand is enforcing rules (i.e. wearing seatbelts!). Thailand has come a long way as far as driving goes and is much more civilized than before. The roads are better, traffic tickets are given out like candy at a parade, and more Thais are comfortable driving a car.

Tuk tuk near the Old Market and Pub Street telling us to be calm. Calm? (2015).

On the other side of the border, including driving on the other side of the road, lies Cambodia and it’s frightening driving. The driving is every-which-way-goes! Lots of car drivers learning-as-they-go (seriously) and rules are loosely enforced so everyone does as they please. This sounds awesome in some ways, but I think a town like SR is growing so fast that this way of driving has reached its expiration date. Bridges and four-ways become congested simply because everyone wants to go all at once. Taking turns is for suckers.

There are a couple public transportation options in Chiang Mai: tuk tuk and songtaew (red truck) – and apparently Uber! The former seems really for tourists, and I hate them:  loud, belching smelly exhaust into the air. I wish they’d go electric, or ban them. They cost about 50-100 baht to go somewhere around the city. Songtaews are not as loud, but some can be equally nasty smelling. These are shared options, so don’t use them if you are in a hurry, you could be the last one in the truck to be dropped off regardless of when you hopped on. They cost 20 baht per ride. Taxis are expensive, but a comfortable option for longer distances.

Only tuk tuks are available in Siem Reap. They vary in price depending on how far you are going, and are much kinder and cleaner for the environment as they are basically motos with a carriage attached to it. And since everyone here uses American money, generally speaking, a ride can cost as little as a $1 for a quick trip, and up to $15 to do an all-day affair at Angkor Wat. Although, I should mention, that I’ve stopped haggling for prices before the ride, and pay them what I feel is generous and fair by the end of my trip.

Actually, I forgot there are motorbike taxis and they are the cheapest option costing half as much as tuk tuks. They’re alright, if not a little dangerous and risky. You know how taxi drivers are!

Bottom line: Ugh. Chiang Mai’s traffic and pollution sucks. Siem Reap’s helter-skelter driving sucks.

Visas

Vientiane Laos Thai Embassy line. Guess how long the line was the day I went? (2014) #thesunishot

This one’s easy: Cambodia wins.

Thailand used to be a pretty decent option for expats. Sure, there’s the pesky 90 day check in at Immigration. Yeah, queues and costs and the hassle of ‘doing a visa run’ to other nearby countries. And while all of that is still holding true, the new government has made it even more challenging to get a visa. You can’t even get a 6 month visa outside of the country anymore. Not an option. They don’t care if you are 70 years old and visiting your grandkids. In addition, you have to produce a bank statement to show you have enough money for a simple two month holiday. Guest houses or family members have to ‘check you in’ at Immigration. I know a couple of Thais who’ve had to pay a fee because they failed to ‘check in’ their foreigner husbands.

Sometimes you don’t want to be treated like a criminal, you know?

Visa hassles are the reason why we left. It got so ridiculous for the bf to legally study Thai that we bailed. A lot of expats were either kicked out or left like us. It’s okay though. I make more money in Cambodia and the bf pursues art full-time.

Time will tell if Cambodia plays it smart and keeps things simple over here. As of now, you can purchase your visa for a reasonable price and that’s it. There was a ‘work permit’ scare last year that basically looked like the police were wanting bribes (they got it), but no one seems to know if they are going to require it in the future. Apparently, they are looking into retirement visas, but again, who knows!

It’s election year over here.

I hear Vietnam just made it easier for expats/travelers to stay for one year, too. As Thailand’s seemingly ‘anti-foreigner’ policies tighten, nearby countries could and probably already have benefited.

Quality of life

Relaxing at Huey Tung Tao, Chiang Mai, 2014.

If you get into an accident in Cambodia or have a major (or even concerning) medical problem, everyone who can heads over to Thailand. It’s a more developed country. Thailand is easy. If someone is complaining about how they can’t find cheese in Thailand, or things they miss about home, they are talking about the past or live in the countryside. Please hit them over the head for me.

Now, if they are moaning about Immigration, visas, work permits or the like, please give them my deepest sympathies.

The Pros: Chiang Mai is a great city. It’s hip, it’s happening, it’s as laid-back or as fun as you want it to be. There is a reason why it’s super popular.

The Cons: It’s changing, a lot. The rules and regulations of the country keep changing, too. This is a doozy because punishments like overstaying your visa, even one day means being banned from the country for one year.

And CM is like Los Angeles, it sits in a bowl and is filled with pollution. Traffic has steadily gotten worse, and even though there is road work, there doesn’t appear to be any effective measures to address either of these problems.

Siem Reap vendor by the river
The river a huge redeeming factor in Siem Reap, 2016.

Most expats who live in Siem Reap love it. In fact, I think I’m the only one who compares it to Thailand and took so long to get on the bandwagon. If you want to start a business, start anything, really, create your own art, make something new, it’s the next frontier. It’s manageable, and for a town of its size has a lot to offer.

The Pros: Siem Reap is growing and as it continues to grow I think will attract more long-term expats and a more comfortable lifestyle. There is a lot of volunteer work and ways to help out the country. The people are friendly, warm and genunine. You don’t have to be an English teacher to survive or live here.

The Cons: There doesn’t seem to be a priority on infastructure, so basic road improvements, city cleanliness and needs of the people are barely met. As a result, scams are common as well as street beggars. Power outages are the norm, it’s hot, dusty and unbearably noisy whenever there’s a funeral or wedding in your neighborhood.

So depending on what you are looking for, Chiang Mai or Siem Reap could be where you want to settle down and try out for a while. I feel fortunate to have lived in both towns. I suppose time will tell which one I like better, but I think comparing the two is like comparing different times in your life: they both gave me what I needed at a particular point of my journey.

What is your experience with these cities?

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34 thoughts on “Chiang Mai versus Siem Reap: an expat weighs in

  1. Hi Lani,

    I am planning to go back and explore some of nicer part of Siem Reap either end of this year or early next year.
    Perhaps, we could meet if my plan work out and if you are still there.
    Anyway, I still need to do more research about Siem Reap before my next adventure or travel to SR.
    Anyway, thanks for your interesting blog about SR and CM.

    Wendy

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good one, lani, thanks. Just wanted to mention that uber is another transport option in c.m. That seems to be making inroads fast. I have now been away from c.m. A couple years because it’s too crowded to ride bike anymore. Might try kampot or Vietnam. Hugs to you, s xxx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, right! My friend Michi mentioned Uber. My goodness, I would have never guessed. Yes, I’ll add that in there. Thanks.

      Ooooo. I’m hoping to go to Kampot in a few months. I’ve been wanting to go there and hit up the beaches and Kep, too. Haven’t made it to Vietnam yet. Keep me posted!

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  3. Never visited either city, but you do a good job of breaking them down 😛 I don’t think I could ever live in a city where the rules change at the drop of a hat – not only so hard to keep up with the law, but also hard to avoid the law hitting you over the head and becoming a criminal overnight.

    Finally seatbelts in Thailand. Malaysia was also pretty slow on the seatbelt bandwagon too, but it was bound to happen eventually. Haha, I can just imagine you going crazy at the malls in CM, shopping until you drop when you get the chance to – maybe you did that recently. I wouldn’t be surprised since you’ve always come across as someone with good fashion sense to me 😛

    CR seems to strike me as a place with a little less urgency about it. As you said, they aren’t focusing on bettering infrastructure when it is clearly needed. It seems, people just put up with it. Either they have a lo of patience or they have just accepted the kind of life the way it is.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. “not only so hard to keep up with the law, but also hard to avoid the law hitting you over the head and becoming a criminal overnight.” – yup, you got it.

      The seatbelt law reminded me of Thailand’s drinking and driving problem and how in America, at least when I was in high school, “MADD or mother’s against drunk driving” was a big thing. And now it’s not, as in, America doesn’t have the horrible deaths after high school graduation like it did. It’s interesting to watch a country develop…

      SR desperately needs infrastructure and someone one to step in and help it develop, but the people have to accept the way things are – at least for now.

      Fashion! Nah, my mom gives me a lot of my clothes. And the bf likes to pick things out for me…:D I’m just the dress up doll 😛

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      1. You got to keep in mind poverty is still a thing in that region in Asia, and so it could be a reason why SR isn’t moving anywhere at the moment. Or maybe locals find it entertaining to drive the way they do.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. How should I say this? Hmmmm. There is a choice is how money is used, and where it goes. There is a lot of money coming in to SR in particular because of Angkor Wat.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Driving on the wrong side of the road was hard enough in the UK, where traffic laws are enforced. I’d be terrified to do it in Cambodia.

    But damn, that Thai food looks good. How come Khmer cuisine developed more mildly, though? Any thoughts?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. i’m khmer american (aka american born cambodian) and i don’t find that khmer cuisine is ‘mild’ as Lani described. yes khmer food in general is less spicy, but there is definitely a full range of flavors in one table spread. For example, there are sour&salty soups, sweet & sour dishes (and poured atop a sizzling fried fish… so good), bitter dishes, fermented fish (prahok, and sometimes coconut is added, aka prahok ktiss) eaten with crunchy fresh veggies, and all kinds of stews, stir frys, and soups that have a special herb like paste called “kroeung.” if you never visit cambodia in the future, maybe you can try Khmer food in the States some time!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Well, I am no expert and I’m happy for the correction from a Khmer! But I went back and reread what I wrote, I never said mild. I said it was alright. I think what Autumn was saying when she said ‘mild’ was it wasn’t spicy.

        Should I add, it is flavorful and varied? Because I honestly think foreigners would take to Khmer food because it is not as torturiously spicy.

        But I’m bias, my mom is an excellent Thai cook – and I like spicy hot!

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    2. Thailand drives on the opposite side from America, but neighboring countries like Laos and Cambodia drive on the same side as us 🙂 It’s kind of trippy when you cross borders and everyone switches over!

      I’m not sure why Khmer cuisine is less spicy. Maybe the colonial influence? Thailand is very proud of not being colonized and everyone around them was.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Yep, Uber is in Chiang Mai in a big way right now. Also, there is a city bus, but it is infrequent, and whenever I’ve seen it, it’s been way overcrowded.

    As far as food goes, I feel totally safe eating absolutely anything in Chiang Mai. My husband and I both got sick eating out in Siem Reap. I felt like it was pretty dodgy eating out there. And with the streets being so filthy, and beggars/land mine victims haunting every restaurant relentlessly, I felt that eating out in Siem Reap was a chore, not a pleasure. There are more risks in general, health-wise, in Cambodia as a whole, I think. At your age, probably not a serious issue. At mine, it was a definite strike against living there.

    But the big issue for me with Chiang Mai right now, which I love otherwise, is the pollution and the lack of government incentives to do anything about it. There are some local efforts combined with some efforts led by ex-pats, but I don’t see burning season being “safe” air-quality-wise within the next several years, and that may be reason enough for us to move on.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Also, I should comment that visa issues are a real problem in Thailand for anyone younger than 50. If you’re older than that, it’s not a problem. I think Thailand realizes the value of having people with retirement incomes take up residence there. Now if they could just fix the air quality issues, it would be perfect.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think it’s safe to say if you have money, then visa issues are not a problem anywhere 😉 And I think Thailand has failed to realize the value of having all ages live and work there because everyone who does, will inevitably spend their money there.

        However, I do think the economy is hurting – at least for the farmers – produce is cheap (my uncle doesn’t get as much for his hot peppers these days) and the baht is not as strong as it was a couple of years ago. Perhaps this is why they have recently waved the tourist visa fees…

        A retired couple I know moved from CM to the HuaHin because of the pollution. Have you considered moving from CM?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yes. We’re actually thinking of moving on to Europe, and partly because of the pollution in CM. Might think about another area of Thailand if we decide to stay.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Ooooo. Lucky. 😀

        I heard that the gov’t is getting rid of street food. Is that true?? MY goodness, I hope not.

        Like

    2. Yeah, the bus. 555 I didn’t mention it for that reason.

      I know people who have gotten very sick in both cities, so that is why I didn’t mention it. But I understand that getting sick takes away the shine of a city – that’s how I felt about Luang Prabang, Laos.

      SR though is so much more than Pub Street, where there are beggars and scammers.We found if you go deeper into the restaurant, they can’t bother you. But honestly, the city needs to do more policing in that area. The restaurants have complained about these liquor wagons parked everywhere at night taking business away.

      I plan on writing a post on where to eat here because, really, SR has some excellent food options. My friend who has lived in CM was impressed by the food here and the bf argues that it’s better than CM!

      When I was in CM for Songkran, my friends mentioned that the burning was more controlled this year and since I could see the outline of the mt, I figured it must be true. I’ve been there when it was really bad, like soupy, everywhere, thick. I pretty much have to wear a mask when I go and 3 days is my limit because I ususally end up getting an itchy throat and sneezing if I stay longer.

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      1. Hmm, maybe they controlled the burning for Songkran, but my friend who’s still there has said a couple of days since then, it’s been so bad they couldn’t leave their apartment.

        Yes, I would love a post about where to eat other than pub street in Siem Reap. We would like to visit there again, and it would be nice to have an idea where else to go. The Cambodian food we had in Siem Reap and elsewhere was really good. I definitely had a couple of dishes that were as spicy as Thai food.

        I thought the people of Cambodia were awesome – very sweet and sincere. Their genuine nature went a long way toward offsetting the negative dining experiences we had. 😉

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Yeah, it’s all about preferences and unique experiences when we visit someplace and even when we live there.

        I met someone who absolutely hated it here and in a funny away ‘blamed me’ for writing about SR. But I didn’t take it personally and I think she was just burned out and having a hard time. Equally, I’ve met folks who just couldn’t get their feet under them in CM…

        Sorry to hear the pollution was kicked up a notch. I really thought the gov’t was trying to enforce new rules 😀 Many expats get a air purifier!

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  6. I can’t say about my experience of both the cities, but I visited Chiang Mai YEARS ago with family on vacation and fell in love with the city. Must have been 15 years ago. At least.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, yes, most people do love it. I was surprised when I met up with a fellow blogger a few years ago and she didn’t. It was refreshing, actually.

      And 15 years ago! You wouldn’t recognize it now. The cobblestone streets have been replaced by hot asphalt and when you stand at Tha Phae Gate, your 360 view is Burger King, Starbucks, Boots, McDonalds and Black Canyon Coffee.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can’t remember there being a single franchise in Chiang Mai when I was there. Progress, eh?

        I think I fell for Chiang Mai because we’d just finished up a few days in Bangkok—did not like that city. Just far too busy, and crowded, and smoggy for me. Chiang Mai was such a welcome change.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. It is interesting to read about cities, which I have never visited and wouldn’t either in future too! Each one has its own charm and challenges! Lovely pics, thanks for sharing your reflections Lani.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I live in Chiang Mai, don’t love it, but it’s where my husbands work is based. I am a small town gal and I never imagined living in a place with such polluted air. In northern Thailand though small town living doesn’t necessarily get you a free pass from the smokey season. The airport in my fav small town, Mae Hong Son, often gets shut down because of the smoke. Is there really no smokey season in SR?

    I can’t wait to hear what you think of Kampot. If I wasn’t married to a Thai (making my long term visa situation in Thailand much easier than most) I’d probably be living in Kampot. Just love the vibe there and the awesome local market with the coolest, tiniest jackfruit vendor.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, I guess that’s the disadvantage of living in the mountains, the hill tribes burning. We’d actually get it up in Chiang Rai, too, but CR is so much smaller than CM so it wasn’t that bad because we didn’t have traffic pollution.

      Siem Reap is south, parallel to Bangkok, so no, we don’t have a burning season. But we do enjoy people burning their trash and waste!

      Ooooo. The second person to mention Kampot. I can’t wait. I’ll probably love it. Have you been to Battambang? I really want to live there instead of here…city planning! But got to make money!

      Like

  9. Although I don’t know either city, it looks like you did an excellent job putting together this detailed description the two cities. Those first two pictures say a lot about the differences. As usual, your photos are excellent.

    Years ago, my husband traveled to Thailand, including Chiang Mai, numerous times while I stayed back in Manila with the kids. He and his buddies used to enjoy talking about their travels and projects there. He always did some shopping for me. I still wear a couple of Thai silk scarves he bought for me.

    Liked by 1 person

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