Chiang Mai continues to attract legions of die-hard digital nomads
Chiang Mai may have the most ruthless enforcement of the midnight closing time in all of Thailand. In fact, it would be hard to find a place in the country where the law is adhered to with such alacrity. Our ‘Rose of the North’, city of culture, capital of Lanna—call it what you will—was never much of a hotspot for evening decadence and nighttime depravity anyway, but one thing we do right these days is coffee shops and cafés.
You can believe the hype disseminated on any number of café-related blogs describing Chiang Mai as a bona fide Zion regarding these places where coffee is coffee, but someone took great care to ensure it was quaffed in peace. Many of the aforementioned blogs—most out of date now—were mainly written by folks who followed the Yellow Brick Road to Chiang Mai from far-flung places and tried to make a living here. Such people might go by the name of “digital nomad”, although following a couple of years of controversy containing alleged pyramid schemes—and self-hyping millennials never shy about telling the world how they are “crushing it”—the term has become somewhat sullied. Most people that work here online may prefer the term “remote worker”.
And there are a lot of them. Outside of the backpacking hub inside the moat, closer to Nimmanhaemin Road and Chiang Mai University, you won’t get far without bumping into this new species of worker that has chosen to forgo the office and enjoy, perhaps, life working on the road. Check any number of international media or digital nomad websites for the “best place to live as a digital nomad” and Chiang Mai will either be top of the list or at least be in the top ten. One of the reasons of course is affordability, but also because of the number of places one can work in peace, ensconced within the walls of some of the prettiest cafes you’ll ever likely come across. The controversy surrounding digital nomads in Chiang Mai arose because of the fact so many people flocked here without much of an idea, and then settled for selling other people ‘5 ways’ they could do the same (hence, the alleged pyramid scheme). Many aspiring nomads quickly found out that their Wizard of Oz was an unscrupulous affiliate marketer.
That aside, serious Chiang Mai remote workers can be found all over the city. Many of them hidden in the cafés that look more like ideal homes, but with coffee and food and an early closing time. The kinds of cafés listed here are all quite grand, and each puts its own unique stamp on café culture. And while some are great for remote workers looking for a comfortable space, others are simply worthy of a visit for their beauty and charm.
CAFÉ DE OASIS
Set back from the street, opposite Chiang Mai’s newish convention centre, you could easily walk past this exquisitely decorated traditional Thai house and its shady surrounding garden. The café is owned by the same people that own the Oasis Spa, one of the older spas in the city. It’s designed in a way to give privacy, although there is one main sitting area in the middle of the house. That is surrounded by garden seating, and also two air-conditioned rooms. One of the rooms seems as if it was designed for meetings and is quite sparse, while the other is lined with antique shelves and rather dazzling colourful chandeliers. Any one of these spaces makes a great work space and can provide you with the feeling of dining in your own quite fine home.
The menu consists of mostly Thai dishes, although there is a breakfast menu that offers such things as Western-style omelets and bacon. One of the main draws is the baked goods—all made in-house, and exceptional to even the most hard-to-please cake aficionados.
02/9 Moo 1 Chiang Puak | Open daily: 8am-5pm
Tel: 053 920 191 | www.facebook.com/cafedeoasiscm
The name is pronounced Chee-wit-kon-tamadar, and the café is fairly new to the scene. And it’s about as close as you’ll get to a five-star-hotel-feel café as you can get. The Chinese-owned café has no ties whatsoever to the very similar sounding coffee shop and restaurant in Chiang Rai, but if you have the chance visit there, too, as it’s also one of the stand-out places in Northern Thailand. The name, which roughly translates as “the life of an ordinary person”, is anything but ordinary. There are four floors, each exquisitely decorated with no expense spared—that includes the bathrooms. It’s ideal for private meetings, and has a 24-seat boardroom table on the third floor. Meetings often take place on the second floor, which also has plenty of private spaces. If remote workers can afford it, there probably isn’t a better place to hide away in the city.
The extensive range of Thai food and Thai/Korean/Japanese fusion food is cooked to a high standard. None of the dishes contains pork due to the owner being Muslim. It also serves everything else you’d expect to find in a coffee shop. Coming very soon will be a Japanese restaurant on the fourth floor, which should be finished by the time this story is published. Located on the street parallel to Nimmanhaemin Road, it is without doubt the classiest and certainly most comfortable cafe in the area. Surprisingly, and blissfully for some, it remains fairly quiet. That has a lot to do with it being possibly the biggest café in the city, and the fact people complain they can’t pronounce the name and so can’t suggest it to others.
21/10 Soi 9 Sirimangklajan Rd. | Open daily: 9am-9pm
Tel: 053 216 883 | www.facebook.com/shewitkhontammada
FERN FOREST CAFÉ
This is perhaps the only café in Chiang Mai’s old city worthy of inclusion on this list. A family run operation, the café is somewhat of an oasis in the middle of the traffic congested roads just beyond the city walls. The owner’s daughter told us her mum owned coffee plantations in the hills and wanted to bring those hills into the city. That she did, and as the name suggests the garden is decorated with ferns as well as trees offering shade to customers. A pond also runs along the front of the restaurant full of koi carp. The building itself is an old house, painted all white inside and out, giving it in an English tea shop vibe. There’s even a piano in the corner, used mostly on weekends when jazz is played throughout the day.
There is a selection of Thai dishes and all-day breakfasts, as well as American and Italian food geared towards the many Westerners you’ll find in this part of the city. The upstairs has a colonial feel to it, the kind of place you’d expect to drink afternoon tea and scones—or cakes, all of which are made on site. Unfortunately, the upper floor is closed on weekdays, but can be booked for meetings or events.
54/1 Singharaj Road, Sirphum | Open daily: 8:30am-8:30pm
Tel: 053 416 204 | www.facebook.com/fernforestcafe
Just outside the city, in the Mae Rim district, lies Sala Café. Situated on a large plot of land, this one time Chiang Mai landmark burned to the ground but was rebuilt shortly after. The two-storey building then became a one-storey building, and the present manager—the owner’s son—says they have also made some changes to the menu. The pull here are the mesmerizing views of the mountains in the distance, and also the quiet hamlet where the site is situated. The grounds are very large, as is the building itself, offering serenity and quiet. Nonetheless, as it’s one of the prettiest looking cafés in the city area, and as such it is often rammed on the weekends. But on the weekdays it is a very relaxing place to spend an afternoon.
The dining area now includes what used to be the garden and, according to manager, after the fire they have doubled their space. The menu is mostly made up of Thai dishes, but they also offer steaks with Thai spicy spices. Pastries are made fresh on site every day in their own pastry kitchen. It’s well worth the 20-minute drive out of town, if not just to see the café but to check out the surrounding areas—one of the more scenic areas close to the city. If you are looking for solitude get there early or late in the evening as this once hidden gem has (rightly) become a rite of passage for locals and visiting tourists.
Open daily: 8am–6pm | 133/11 Moo 5, Mae Rim
Tel: 053 860 996 | www.facebook.com/mysalacafe
BAAN SUAN KAFE
Like Sala Cafe, people flock here on the weekends and it can get very busy. The attraction is quite the opposite, though, as it is located right in the foothills of the mountain. Located not too far from Chiang Mai University, and a short drive from one of the better temples in the city—Wat Oemong—the property is right inside the jungle, and so it remains cool much of the day with the canopy shielding it from the sun.
It’s spread over quite a large area, which includes a stream running through the lower half of the grounds. There you can sit on swings over the water and it feels as if the city is a long way off. There is also massage offered next to the restaurant, as well as some walking paths into the jungle. The food is mostly Thai, with some bakery items as well. But take note digital nomads… there is no Wi-Fi (and rightly so, as that would defeat the purpose of coming to such a rustic jungle hideout). Around the corner is a large plot of land owned by Chiang Mai University Agricultural faculty, replete with a lake, rice paddies, and walking paths.
Open daily: 8am–5pm (closed on the 15th & 16th of every month)
170 Moo 3, Mae Hia | Tel: 086 427 1042
By James Austin Farrell