Penang vs Chiang Mai as a Digital Nomad

Where to live as a Digital Nomad is a frequent hot topic around the net at the moment, with everybody having their say on the ideal location to get your business off the ground. So when put to the test, where was my ideal Digital Nomad spot? Penang vs Chiang Mai?

Chiang Mai is one of the most common Digital Nomad hotspots in Asia, with destinations in Vietnam , Cambodia and the Thai Islands coming a closer runner up. I think, however, that when it comes to choosing your ideal spot it’s more important to work out what factors are most important to you. Of course cheap living and a good climate are at the top of most people’s lists, but what comes after that?

For me, the priorities may have been a little different than your run-of-the-mill digital nomad, but then again – who’s aren’t? We all have our own unique desires and hobbies to fufil.

Penang might not be for everybody, but it certainly was an excellent spot for me. Curious? here’s a blow by blow, Penang vs Chiang Mai comparison between the two, based entirely off my own opinions and experiences of these two uniquely brilliant Southeast Asian cities.

First and Foremost –  Penang vs Chiang Mai, The Food:

Some people bond with Thai food in a way that I didn’t. Given that it’s been almost 6 months since I was last in Thailand and I’m still craving a good Tom Yam, but that’s the exception. I still hold a glimmer of hope in the suggestion that maybe I just prefer Southern Thai food, and the Northern style stuff isn’t my thing. Regardless of personal taste, the variety of foods available in Penang well exceeds Chiang Mai, as well as the availability & price of nutritious food loaded with vegetables.

Sure, you can pick up a taste khao soi or Pork on rice for a couple of bucks, but in Penang’s Indian areas you can spend the same and get a banana leaf loaded with 3 different verge curries, dhals, pickles and rice. Often all you can eat too.

Result? Penang Wins for quality & variety of food for same price.


 Penang vs Chiang Mai on Quality of Internet

Unfortunately, this is one of the big let-downs of Penang for digital nomads. Some cafes provide Wifi, but finding anything hi-speed can be a challenge. Even the internet cafes provide severely limited connections. Chiang Mai, on the other hand, is built for digital nomad. High speed internet is readily available in cafes and co-working spaces all around, you can even get it connected to your condo on a no-contract, month by month basis and the speeds (and price) are excellent.

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And the winner.. Chiang Mai wins easily for speed & general availability

Who has the best Cultural Experience?

Thai culture can be fascinating, it has a ton of history and an endless supply of beautiful temples and monuments to support it. Anywhere in Asia, in fact, provides a fantastic cultural experience if you’re visiting from the Western world.

Penang has an edge in it’s huge diversity. In Penang, and across most of Malaysia in fact, you’ll find a blend of ethnic Chinese, Indian, Malay and Western ex-pats. You’ll find a vibrant hindu temple just blocks away from a palatial mosque, the diversity is just amazing. This mish-mash of heritage brings so many layers to the Culture that is unrivalled by Chiang Mai.

Penang Wins for blend of interesting cultures, and different areas

Exotic and Exciting Places to Explore

Both Penang & Chiang Mai are beautiful and interesting places to visit, and if you’re really into the tourist attractions  then Chiang Mai is the place to go. Chiang Mai also has a gorgeous old city surrounded by moat and old city walls. Hidden away within the old city walls is a plethora of temples and wandering orange robed monks. However, the old city has become a bit of a haven for the new-age tourist, and at times can all feel a little contrived. Think over-priced lattes and westerner run yoga retreats around every corner.

If you’re happy to rent a car, motorbikes or even a driver for the day, there’s plenty of interesting spots to visit outside of Chiang Mai, But if you’re looking for more diversity yet in a small area, check out Penang. On the island alone you can explore lush jungles, durian and rubber farmed hillsides, snake temples, quaint fishing villages, palm fringed beaches and unesco heritage zoned George Town.

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Penang wins again for its great variety – big city, hilltops, jungles, suburbs, western beaches & fishing villages, simply because I like untouched local things to explore. Chiang Mai certainly has its merits too, so this was a super close call.


Let’s Not Forget Massage

For a few months there message became a part of my daily routine. I absolutely fell in love with Thai massage and its amazing after effects, not to mention its ridiculously affordable price. It was probably the thing I missed most (and still do) after leaving Thailand. I once heard somebody refer to it as ‘lazy mans yoga’, an apt analogy.

Chiang Mai wins hands down. Penang massage is far and few between, and double the price.


Penang vs Chiang Mai’s Climate & Weather:

Climate preferences are SO subjective, so I am speaking here entirely on behalf of myself. I love hot, love love love it. To be honest though, at times Penang was just too hot. In saying that, I was in Chiang Mai over Christmas (their winter time) and although I would never consider it officially cold, it certainly wasn’t as warm as I like things. Hard choice really, I think I would prefer something in the middle of the two.

It’s a draw! If you love the kind of heat & humid only being that close to the equator can bring, go with Penang. Otherwise maybe Chiang Mai will do it for you.


Digital Nomad Culture:

Chiang Mai is totally set up for Digital Nomads, and rightly so – It’s one of the top digital nomad hotspots of the world. Penang doesn’t have much of a ‘start-up culture’ yet, and finding other likeminded individuals can be a bit tricky, although not entirely impossible. Places such as co-working spaces are hard to find – in fact, we never found any.  If you’re particularly set on a co-working space office and a large group of DN friends ready and easy to meet, then Chiang Mai wins.

An easy win for Chiang Mai 

Accommodation & Condos:

Penang condos can be pretty amazing, often providing stunning beachfront views that Chiang Mai can’t, the prices are about the same as Chiang Mai too. There are a few things that let Penang down on the condo front though, the standard condo in Penang is 3 bedrooms, which can be a bit of a pain if you’re traveling alone, or as the two of you. I asked around plenty, and the general consensus is that all Penang condos are the standard 3 bedroom, it’s just how things are. The other big difference is the length – most landlords and agencies will not accept tenants for less than 6-12 months. In Chiang Mai, it’s incredibly easy to score yourself a studio apartment, fully furnished, and on a single month by month basis.

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Another win for Chiang Mai on this one


Penang vs Chiang Mai’s Local People

Sorry Thailand, I know you are the ‘Land of Smiles’, however on the friendliness scale it was all a bit of a let down. So much so, in fact, that we wondered if the nickname was given by an ironic, pissed off tourist. Penang on the other hand was one of the most friendly, accommodating cities I have ever visited. Full of smiling, happy people offering us lifts, helping us out and even frequently yelling “welcome to Malaysia!” out the window on the days we happened to be wandering around with out backpacks.

Penangites won our hearts 

Penang vs Chiang Mai: Overall Score? A Draw. 

Both spots have some fantastic things about them, just as both are missing something. When broken down like this, I find both cities draw. Personally, In the moment I prefer Penang. However, It totally depends on what your priorities are, and on a different day when Im seeking something else, the scales might tip in Chiang Mai’s favour.

Penang vs Chiang Mai points all, the best way to find your ideal spot is to just get out there and explore. We never would’ve ended up in Penang based on word-of-mouth alone, so the key really lies in getting out there and testing all the places! Have you got a particular digital nomad spot that you think is amazing or up and coming? Comment below!

7 thoughts on “Penang vs Chiang Mai as a Digital Nomad

  1. Darren Reply

    Great post. Having being to both Chiang Mai and Penang, I opted for Penang to do my first ‘stint’ as a freelancer who is location independent. The main reason for me is that the people are far more friendly, and I didn’t feel like i was getting ripped off all the time + the traffic and roads in Chiang Mai are a death trap, I didn’t feel safe. The only downside, as you mentioned, is that Penang doesn’t have a real community feel about it compared with Chiang Mai.

  2. Derek Reply

    Fab comparison between the two. I float between both places avoiding smoky season in both. Must say I do think your writing on the climate would changed if you spent hot season in Chiang Mai (often in the 40’s I’ve see 42/43 C often) Where Penang, for me perfect year round. Never hotter than 32-33 or colder than 23-25 for day time low. The further you move north or south teh greater the swing in temperatures.

    I have pondered with the idea of opening a small co working space as for price 50mb/sec internet access is availabe in Penang. however 1mb or 2mb is the most common speed on the island for guest houses, cafe’s, priv connections and so on and price rises steeply and is very expensive compared to Thailand.

    I add Chiang Mai now has a whopping 1GB/sec connection for 590 Bahts / month from AIS!.

  3. voyage84 Reply

    I would ad pollution, which is bigger in CM and would agree with other points, although the winner should be Chiang Mai.

    • Ben Reply

      I’m not sure that’s entirely true. Come October, fires from Sumatra send smoke over Penang which occasionally makes it painful to breathe. It was especially bad when I was there in 2015.

  4. John Donnelly Reply

    Hin Anna, I am writing this now from my Penang, although I am living in Chiang Mai. I agree with most of what you have said but there are a few things I view differently. I think Thai people are more friendly in that they do smile and bow all the time. Here I miss those smiles altogether. The weather is currently hotter and more humid in Chiang Mai. I am surprised at this myself, it is October, and I actually feel more comfortable in Penang, weatherwise. The traffic in Penang is insane, the footpaths are non existant, and crossing the road is a huge ordeal. For general getting about Chiang Mai wins hands down.

  5. Lucian Reply

    As much as I love Thailand, one extra point that should be added in favor of Penang is the hassle-fee VISA, as you get a 90 day stamp on your passport while in Thailand you either get a 15 VOA (paid) or 30 days (most Western Countries) and have to apply for a VISA if you want to stay more than that.

    • Anna Post authorReply

      Lucian thanks – that’s such a good point. The Malaysian visa process is SO simple, one of the best/easiest in the world

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