If you're thinking about living somewhere in Asia, this is one happy possibility. When I sing the praises of Chiang Mai, Thailand to my friends and family back home, I find that what it all boils down to is that Chiang Mai is a fine place to visit, but a great place to live.
Visiting for a few days is a fine addition to anyone's travel agenda. There are hill tribe villages and elephant camps, and in the old city proper one finds temples and wats around every corner. There's a Sunday "impromptu" walking market which is one of the most beautiful and culturally authentic events this city has to offer.
Visiting for a few weeks is also an option to consider. Once you've traveled all the way here, if you can, you should stay. Chiang Mai attracts both new-agey types who come here to study massage, yoga, tai chi, or reiki healing, and on the flip side, Chiang Mai also attracts more macho adventuring types who rent big Kawasaki Ninjas or Harleys and torque their way around hare-pin turns in the mountain country that stretches from Chiang Mai to Burma. It also counts it's fair share of "regular" types who are here just for Thai cooking classes, or to shop for carved teak furniture or silk cushions.
For the rest, the people who decide to call Chiang Mai home for a month, a year, or until death do they depart, the reasons to do so are plentiful. It's a bite-sized Asian city, but brimming with a steady surplus of truly affordable niceties. It has better weather due to it's mountainous location, plus Chiang Mai is plunk in the middle of most Asian destinations, like Laos, Vietnam and China to the north, and KL, Singapore and Bali to the south, making it an ideal base for extended Asian travel. It is safe, scams and rip-offs are far and a few between, people are friendly and tolerant, and in general it is a relaxed, easy-going place. It's a college town too, so the Thai youth culture here also adds a lot of life.
Go through the alternatives – Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Saigon, Jakarta, Seoul – and you have important city capitals that are fairly uniform experiences of unplanned concrete urban sprawl, stress, pollution and traffic jams. Chiang Mai is no Shangri-La, but in comparison it is a small miracle – a nice, cozy, manageable city, yet one that still manages to thrive with competing restaurants, guesthouses, eateries, cafes, boutiques, massage places, internet cafes, bars, etc.
This is probably the essential reason it is a top destination for long-term travelers, retirees and expats who want to stay in Asia and recognize the great value Chiang Mai offers. It's a buyer's market. Too many cafes means plenty of good cafes all do their best to be the best. Too many guesthouses and apartments means no one will have trouble finding a place in their budget. And then of course there is the food. Provided you are up for eating more than pizza or steak, you can eat fantastic meals for just a dollar or two. And Chiang Mai is exploding with options, far, far more than there really should be. Many people who live here eat out every day twice a day, and boredom is not a problem.
So, here's another not-so-secret secret about relocating to the "Land of Smiles" – you can stay here on a tourist visa, for years. And years. And it's not a problem. You simply have to go to a Thai embassy outside of Thailand, apply for a 2-month tourist visa, enter Thailand, and then extend it for another month after that to remain three months in-country. Then, repeat. You can travel by overnight bus to Laos to do it, or fly to Malaysia, China, Seoul, Australia, etc. and do it there. There are also student visas, retirement visas, work visas, and marriage visas to be had. It's just not that hard or complicated to remain here, and Thailand tacitly wants you to stay as well – it's a well-accepted though unspoken part of their current economic well-being.
As for places to stay in this city, again, it's a buyer's market. There are upscale condos you can buy or rent (owners are often out-of-town for part of the year), fully furnished suburban houses in gated communities, service apartments with cable TV, internet, laundry service and all types of amenities, cheap -o student apartments, down-low guesthouses where the owner cooks a dinner for guests every night, and of course a full spectrum of hotels and resorts. FYI – if you want to splurge and stay in high style at a resort / hotel for more than a week, be sure and see if they offer a monthly rate as it may be a better bargain than even ten days of paying day-by- day.
For the casual low-budget visitor, here is a little nitty-gritty. You can buy excellent clothes very cheaply here, the pharmacies are just like the ones where you come from (so no, you don't need to bring four months' worth of deodorant and shampoo), you don't need to get any special vaccines, and to get around, you can rent a small motorcycle (like the ubiquitous Honda Dream) for about $ US 5 a day, or a bicycle for God knows how cheaply. You can even save a little money on a dentist trip at home and get your teeth done here – it's on average half the price of the US
So, if you want to live abroad, for a week, a month, or the rest of your life, consider Chiang Mai. Just bring some money, some good rugged flip-flops, and your camera. It's really that simple.