GETTING AROUND CHIANG MAI
If you’ve never been to Chiang Mai before or need some help understanding how to navigate to and around the city then this guide is for you!
Please check the visa requirements for your home country HERE. Visa rules and regulations change frequently so do your research ahead of time to avoid disappointment !
Chiang Mai is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Thailand. As a result over the years the travel methods to get there have multiplied and become more efficient, it has never been easier to get to Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is located in the gorgeous mountainous region of Northern Thailand, about 700km North of Bangkok. There are several ways to travel there, which you can choose from according to your point of departure, the amount of time you have on your hands to travel there and what your budget is.
The most popular way to get to Chiang Mai is by airplane. Chiang Mai International Airport is located a mere 10 minutes from the centre of the Old City (when there’s no traffic!) making it an extremely convenient way to reach the city, you can get right in the thick of getting to the festival or seeing Chiang Mai as soon as you land!
Several airlines operate both local and international routes to Chiang Mai, on both budget and premium airlines. I use Skyscanner to compare prices and to see which flights operate from your departure city.
The flight from Bangkok takes around an hour and a half, compared to other transport options this is the quickest way to get to the North of Thailand.
The cheapest way to travel to Chiang Mai from Bangkok is by bus, and this takes around 10 to 11 hours. And you’ll come into either Chiang Mai Arcade Bus Station on the North-Eastern part of the city which handles long-distance trips on both government and private buses, or into Chang Phuak Bus Station on the North side of the city which manages services to and from local towns.
You’ll be able to choose between a government-run service or one of the private bus companies (‘VIP’ or ‘luxury’ buses). The latter are definitely more comfortable and the price difference is only marginal. Private bus companies have reclining seats, the air con is usually better and you’ll be treated to a movie and a snack! It’s advisable to book your ticket ahead of time particularly if you’re travelling on the weekend, buses fill up fast!
If you’re coming from Bangkok you’ll be able to get a bus from either Bangkok’s Northern Bus Terminal (Mo Chit) which is accessible by BTS (Sukhumvit line) or from Khao San Road. If you’re staying at a hotel or hostel they will be able to advise you on where you can buy tickets offline. Otherwise you can also buy your tickets online on 12go.asia. Buses usually run from 6am to 10pm so you can choose between travelling in the daytime or getting a sleeper bus but watch out for your belongings, petty theft on board isn’t uncommon. Bus ticket prices vary between 200THB and 800THB depending on the service you take.
If you’re coming from a town other than Bangkok you may have to pass through the capital first before completing your journey, you’ll need to check this with the local bus operators. This also includes people coming from further afield like Cambodia for example. If you’re coming from destinations in the northern part of South East Asia you’ll probably be able to get a bus on its way to Bangkok but going through Chiang Mai. To check international bus schedules and to book your bus travel online go to 12go.asia.
If you’re travelling from Bangkok then you can also consider taking the train from Hualumpong Station. The train takes up to 15 hours depending on the service, it’s definitely the slowest way to get to Chiang Mai but if you’ve got time and want a relaxing travel experience then the train may be the right option for you.
Bus journeys can be hectic, particularly if you get caught in traffic and can sometimes take more time than the train! At least if you’re on the train and travelling in the daytime you’ll get to take in some sights. If you’re taking the night train you can make the most of the dining cart experience which you don’t get on the bus and you get a proper bed rather than just a reclining seat so you’ll probably get more sleep!
In terms of price, that will depend on which class you book on the train and which service you get, whether it’s a daytime or overnight service. Prices start from 300THB for a 3rd class ticket but you’ll be travelling in an upright position on a wooden bench. Second class sleepers usually go for around 1000THB depending on whether you choose a top bunk or lower bunk. Lower bunks offer more leg room so are definitely more accommodating for taller passengers! First class sleepers sell for around 1700THB, these are private compartments shared by two people.
Plan and book your ticket in advance, sleeper trains sell out weeks and sometimes months in advance!
You can read up on the different services available and book your travel on 12go.asia.
GETTING AROUND CHIANG MAI
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s fourth biggest city and has developed over the years a reliable network of public transport options to help you get around efficiently.
Whether you’re arriving into Chiang Mai International Airport or at either the city’s bus or train terminals, your options to get to your onward destination will be the same.
A Songthaew (a.k.a the red taxi truck) which means ‘two rows’ in Thai describes the red pickup trucks which have been converted into taxis and have two rows of seats in the back. Most of the ones in the city are red but there are Songthaews of different colours, the colour indicates a different route, these go further afield outside of the city centre.
They’re easy to spot and they’re dotted around the city throughout the day and night making it one of the most convenient modes of transport to use in Chiang Mai. You can either flag one down or go up to a waiting driver. Before getting on you have to tell the driver where you want to go and ask for the price (prices are per person). If you’re happy with the cost of the trip then hop on!
But if you’re having trouble finding one then you can request one by using Grab, an on-demand taxi and car-hailing application. The price will already be fixed by the application so you won’t need to worry about haggling.
What makes them different to private taxis is that Songthaews are shared, the driver will stop to pick up and drop off other passengers on the way to your destination. Songthaews are a cheap mode of transport and are a great way to meet the locals.
You can rely on Songthaews for short distances or you can try to haggle a day-long rate and get a driver to take you to some of the nearby sights.
If you’re not up for sharing or are in desperate need of some air conditioning then taxis are your best transport option to get around Chiang Mai. There aren’t that many local taxis operating in the city so they’re not that easy to flag down around the streets. If you’re staying at a hotel then they can arrange one for you, if you’re happy with the driver you should grab their phone number to be able to arrange future rides. They are however lined up at the airport so you won’t have any trouble finding one there.
Taxi rides should be on a meter, don’t let any local drivers fool you into paying a fixed price! Don’t cave and be firm with asking for the meter, you’ll find one eventually who will take you.
BY MOTORBIKE TAXIS
Motorbike taxi drivers gather in groups at the bus station and on some street corners. You can recognise them by their pink vests, they’ll have a number and their registration papers on the back of their vest so you know they’re an official motorbike driver. Definitely ask for the fare before getting on and have a go at haggling if you disagree with the price. Motorbike taxis are great to zip around the city’s traffic but definitely not convenient if you’ve got luggage!
If you’re unable to hail a taxi down yourself you can also resort to Grab, an on-demand taxi and car-hailing application. The app will give you the option between a private car and/or a regular taxi. The fares between the two options only vary a little, however there is a small booking fee for GrabTaxis but not for GrabCars.
You’ll be able to use Grab in other South East Asian countries so it’s handy to have on your phone. And once you’ve signed up you’ll be eligible for discount codes to reduce the cost of your trips!
If you’re only planning to get around the Old City then renting a bicycle is the best idea. You won’t get stuck in any traffic, you’ll be able to get around in your own time and it only costs 50THB per day to rent one! Making it the most cost effective way to get around Chiang Mai apart from walking!
You can also download Mobike, a bike sharing service and application which allows you to locate the nearest bicycle so you can peddle around the city as you please.
The RTC Chiang Mai City Bus covers most corners of Chiang Mai city. The buses are air-conditioned and the fare is only 20THB per person! You can pay in cash when you get onboard.
The bus lines connect the airport, the bus station and the city. To find out where the bus lines run download the ‘CM TRANSIT’ mobile app.
RENT A CAR OR A SCOOTER
If you’ve got an international driving licence then you’ll be able to rent a car or a scooter. Some places will let you rent without a licence but it’s not advisable, the police have been cracking down on people driving illegally. And also make sure that you ride your scooter with a helmet, you don’t want to give them another excuse to fine you!
Having your own car or scooter will give you a lot more flexibility in terms of where and when you can go somewhere. You won’t be waiting around for taxis and if you’re travelling long distances then this option will definitely some you some money.
Chiang Mai is busy, the traffic can get pretty bad and if you’re not used to driving in Asia then neither option to rent your own mode of transport is recommended, it can be very overwhelming and quickly become dangerous.
You can rent scooters in town, most hotels and hostels can help you sort one out. If you’re looking to rent a car and you’re coming from the airport then you can get one from there, otherwise there are plenty of rental companies in the Old City. Some places will only require a deposit but some will want to keep your passport until you return the rental.
I recommend you take photos of the car or scooter before you take off so you have some evidence of the condition it was in when they handed the keys over. It’s not uncommon for rental companies to try and keep your deposit!