*updated 2 Feb 2018
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.
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.
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…
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, 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.
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.
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) – oh and Starbucks is a-comin’.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
Bottom line: CM has more variety than SR.
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.
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.
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.
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 Uber (don’t use them) and Grab! 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 30 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.
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
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.
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?