Drinking Water in Chiang Mai – A Survival Guide
It’s a familiar scene to those living in the developed world: parched, you reach for the tap (faucet) to enjoy a cool, refreshing drink of water not giving a moment’s thought to the origin, treatment or conveyance of such a precious –and life-giving- resource. Do that in Chiang Mai and you may find yourself on the receiving end of a nasty stomach complaint. Backed by a public endorsement from Prayuth Chan-ocha, Thailand’s premier, the state Provincial Waterworks Authority (PWA) has repeatedly assured those living in Chiang Mai that the municipal water supply does, in fact, exceed safety standards laid down by the United Nations’ World Health Organisation (WHO). Nevertheless even among local Thai residents, there exists an almost universal distrust of consuming water straight from the tap. Such concerns are not altogether unjustified, though, on account of the city’s aging –and often neglected- network of underground water pipes.
Although bringing tap water to a rolling boil for at least 1 minute will effectively kill off any waterborne disease-causing bacteria and other pathogenic microorganisms, it won’t remove (and may actually concentrate) particulate matter, potentially hazardous heavy metals and other chemical contaminants that have accumulated en route from the processing plant. So, unless you’re a hardcore expat with the constitution of an ox, from where can you source fresh drinking water in Chiang Mai, how much does it cost and exactly how safe is it?
SELF-SERVICE WATER-VENDING MACHINES
Accessible at any time of day or night, self-service water-vending machines are present in abundance throughout residential areas of the city and particularly on the grounds of apartment blocks and condominiums. More often than not they occur as solitary units and dispense still water either chilled or, more typically, at ambient temperature. Coin-operated with the price displayed somewhere on the front of the machine, using one simply requires the correct money (since none return change) and any number of containers in which to collect the water. For those on the very tightest of budgets, such machines are by far the most cost-effective alternative to guzzling regular tap water and cost either 1 baht or 50 satang for a litre (or, on occasion, 1.5 litres) of water. Only 1, 2, 5 and 10 baht coins are accepted though (and should be older denominations as newer coins tend to be rejected) hence the minimum spend at any water-vending machine is 1 baht with the resultant yield therefore 1, 1.5, 2 or 3 litres.
Although the aesthetics of water-vending machines differ by manufacturer, they’re all operated in exactly the same way as illustrated below:
- Open both the left and right compartment doors on the front of the machine.
- Pull down/lift up the tray in the left-hand compartment according to the height of your empty bottle or other container.
- Place your uncapped bottle or other container directly underneath the overhead nozzle in the left-hand compartment.
- Insert the appropriate amount of baht into the top coin slot of the right-hand compartment
- Push the green button (indicated in the photograph by the red arrow) once to start the flow of water and, at any time, press again to stop it.
Because water-vending machines are connected directly to the municipal water supply, units incorporate one or more purification processes –clearly designated on the front of the machine- to treat the mains water before it’s dispensed. At the very least, water-vending machines are equipped with Reverse Osmosis (RO) filtration but sometimes employ Ultraviolet (UV) light or Ozone sterilisation in addition. Filling up at a water-vending machine is something of a lottery, however, as units are seldom maintained so the water from which is often no better than –and usually as unpalatable as- that direct from the tap; in an effort to avoid re-introducing the same risks associated with drinking tap water, it’s prudent to use only newer looking machines, those on the premises of reputable apartment blocks, condominium buildings or commercial establishments, those units which advertise more than one method of water purification (RO+UV, for example) and, as an extra precaution, use a decent quality table-top water filter jug (such as the BRITA Aluna or Giffarine Purimag).
Reverse Osmosis has been scientifically proven time and again to filter a high proportion (95 to 99%) of impurities from water but, in the process, also removes trace vitamins and minerals which might otherwise be beneficial to the body. Purification by Reverse Osmosis isn’t a particularly efficient technology either and for every litre of water treated, several more are wasted. At the same time, the novelty value of using a water-vending machine can soon wear off having to repeatedly haul heavy bottles of water back and forth (though the frequency of such trips can at least be minimised by purchasing a 20 litre polyethylene bottle with integrated tap dispenser available locally from most hardware stores, from Makro or from any of the hypermarkets for between 200 and 300 baht).
HOUSEHOLD WATER PURIFICATION SYSTEMS
Although at times discoloured or smelling strongly of added chlorine, it’s generally considered that brushing teeth, rinsing dentures, showering/bathing and washing dishes in the city’s tap water will cause you no ill-effects. But what if you could enjoy that cool, refreshing drink of water from the comfort of your own Chiang Mai home by rendering tap water completely free of any harmful pollutants, improving its clarity and taste, neutralising any odours and softening it at the same time? In this respect, the most sustainable –as well as least environmentally damaging- solution is to become the proud owner of an in-home water purification system. Most commonly offered either as a countertop unit or as an under-the-sink appliance, those living in rental accommodation are reminded to seek written permission from their landlord (or approved agent) prior to fitting an in-home water purification system which requires any addition or modification to the property’s plumbing.
With an almost dizzying selection of domestic manufacturers (Mazuma, Uni-Pure, Treatton, Filtex, Aquatek, Colandas and Clarte to name just a few) as well as a number of well-known foreign brands (such as Amway), water purification systems for the home can be purchased online (through the likes of Lazada Thailand) or are widely available at any of the major DIY retailers (such as baan&BEYOND, HomePro, Hardwarehouse and Global House), at independent stockists throughout the city and even at Tesco Lotus hypermarkets and Big C supercentres. Price-wise, units retail at less than 1500 baht to ten or more times as much depending on the quality, number and type of integrated purification features. Besides an outlay for the unit itself, it’s important to factor in any one-off and ongoing costs; specifically, professional installation (if needed), replacement filter cartridges, servicing or repair and, of course, monthly mains water charges (in Chiang Mai, the rates for which vary from around 10 to 40 baht per unit (measured in m3 and equivalent to 1000 litres) of water). So while an in-home water purification system represents an economically sound means of obtaining safe, clean drinking water for those living in Chiang Mai long-term, it’s not an especially suitable choice for individuals on a short stay.
Working on the same principle as a self-service water-vending machine, household water purification systems provide a combination of barrier methods including Reverse Osmosis, activated carbon, ceramic and sedimentation filters with the most popular models offering 3-stages of water hygiene. In the interests of maintaining the integrity of the purified water, though, it’s imperative to clean/change the filter cartridges -which variously cost from 200 to 600 baht- in strict accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions (typically every 6 to 12 months).
BOTTLED WATER: STORE-BOUGHT
With the industry worth a staggering 34 billion baht and ranked in the top ten of countries worldwide, the bottled water sector in Thailand is big business…and still growing. Yet you might be surprised to learn that an estimated 50 to 60% of all domestic producers of bottled water do, in fact, obtain their water from the public water supply. Perhaps not so shockingly, most of the major beverage companies boast large scale and sophisticated water treatment facilities to ensure the contents are fit for human consumption before being shipped. Most notable among such brands are Crystal (manufactured and distributed in Thailand by Pepsi) and Namthip (a Coca-Cola corporation). Some, such as the Thai brewery giants Chang and Singha, on the other hand exploit underground water sources to supply their own trusted brands of bottled drinking water. Marginally more pricey than both, though, is spring water and which is readily identifiable by the wording ‘100% natural mineral water’ on the bottle’s label. Indeed, it’s said that the finest quality spring water in all of Thailand is that derived from Chiang Mai province (predominantly the mountain catchment areas of Chiang Dao, Fang and Mae Rim districts) and despite their rather exotic sounding names, popular brands like Aura, Minéré, Mont Fleur, Nestlé Pure Life and Purra are all domestic products, subject to minimal man-made purification and bottled at the source.
Without question the most expensive (in relative terms) and least eco-friendly form of drinking water, bottled water is accessible round-the-clock and more or less instantly by virtue of the fact that 7-Eleven convenience stores in Thailand are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and are seldom more than a block or two away. Otherwise, just about anywhere in the city that sells food and drink will also carry bottled water of one kind or another and often available ice-cooled from a chiller cabinet.
Packaged largely in plastic bottles (although Chang, Crystal and Singha also supply both non-carbonated and soda water in glass bottles) varying in size from a mere 330ml to the giant-sized 19 litre containers offered by Nestlé Pure Life, Chang and Singha), domestic bottled water is available individually or in shrink-wrapped bundles of 6, 12 or 24 off the shelf. Almost without exception, the greater the volume of same-brand bottled water you buy, the better the value with prices for the standard-sized 1.5 litres starting at 9 baht for Big C’s own H2O brand of drinking water (or 49 baht for a pack of 6) to 24 baht for Mont Fleur spring water at Rimping, Chiang Mai’s premium supermarket; the larger 6 litre containers of bottled water range in price from 26 baht for Makro’s own brand (Aro) to 59 baht for Minéré at 7-Eleven. Outside of any promotional period, the price differential for identical products can be significant though (6 litres of Minéré at Tesco Lotus, for example, is just 47 baht) so if you’re brand-loyal, it’s worthwhile shopping around to secure the biggest bang for your baht.
For those with more expensive tastes, all of Chiang Mai’s western style super-/hypermarkets (Big C, Central Food Hall, Rimping, Tesco Lotus and Tops) stock an array of prominent imported brands of bottled water not least Evian, Perrier, San Pellegrino and Volvic but which attract equally extravagant prices; you should expect to pay anywhere between 50 and 90 baht for 1.5 litres of foreign bottled water.
BOTTLED WATER: HOME-DELIVERED
Infinitely more affordable and a whole lot greener than store-bought bottled water, numerous companies throughout Chiang Mai offer the added convenience of home delivery (and collection/refill thereafter) of potable bottled water. While suppliers operate every day of the year (even during official Thai holidays) and collectively serve the entire city, distribution to a particular location is normally scheduled to occur only on a weekly basis. Of all such local concerns, Glacier is consistently regarded as the most reputable by foreigners and Thais alike on account of its superior water quality, reliable service and keen pricing. Based in the neighbouring district of Saraphi, they provide non-sparkling and ozonated ‘Pure Mountain’ drinking water in re-usable, properly sealed bottles; a crate of 20x 1 litre opaque plastic bottles costs 42 baht (with a refundable deposit of 200 baht), a single 20 litre opaque plastic bottle 23 baht (with a refundable deposit of 90 baht) or, for a cleaner taste (and conscience!), 24x 500ml of drinking water in transparent glass bottles for 60 baht (with a refundable deposit of 300 baht). Although Glacier lack both a website and Facebook page, an order can be placed with them directly by calling local number 053 423991 or, as at many apartment blocks, condominium buildings and moo baan [Thai housing estates], courtesy of the resident Juristic Person or reception staff. Other than Glacier, comparable local drinking water delivery services can be arranged through Polestar and Dew Drop.
19/20 litre bottles of drinking water may well represent the very best value for money but do be aware that a full container will weigh a back-breaking 19/20 kg. To avoid injuring yourself, ask the delivery driver or one of the on-site property staff (as appropriate and ideally accompanied by a token gratuity) to transport the bottle to its final resting place and especially if it’s to be used in conjunction with a free-standing top-loading home water dispenser. Alternately, it’s recommended to invest in either a metal tilting cradle/holder to facilitate pouring from such a heavy bottle or to purchase a plastic pump dispenser (battery- or hand-operated) which is then mounted on the spout of the bottle.
Whilst many of the local eateries in Chiang Mai supply free drinking water (invariably sourced from one of the bottled water delivery companies), ice is usually provided separately in a plastic lidded bucket and to which you help yourself using the nearby ladle. For the most part, ice in Thailand comes in ‘cubes’ having a cylindrical shape with a central hole and which has been commercially produced using purified water so perfectly safe to consume. In the same respect, ice-vending machines and pre-packaged bags of ice (for 7 or 8 baht) found in convenience stores across the city pose no health risks.
From wherever you source your drinking water, though, it’s vital to stay properly hydrated at all times particularly during the dry and hot season in Chiang Mai (approximately early March to late May).
How do you obtain your drinking water? We’d absolutely love to hear your own experiences and thoughts on the subject by posting a comment below!
Confused by your electricity or mains water bill? Read our handy guide to Utilities in Chiang Mai.