Jan 26 2012

Should I start my Thailand trip in Bangkok or Chiang Mai?

Published by at 10:29 pm under Practicalities

First, tourism surged in Thailand in the 1960s, due to faster planes, a rise in the standard of living, a simulacrum of political stability, and Nam soldiers needing some R & R. Second, the fundamental question still being asked today arose: should I begin my journey through Thailand in Bangkok or Chiang Mai?

Not a bad place to start.

After an in-depth analysis comparing which city is better, I came up with no answer; it’s apples to oranges, tom yum to gaeng som. So if both cities are worth visiting, where should you start? The most simple truth is, it doesn’t really make a big difference. Nowadays, with relatively comfortable, relatively fast trains and cheap flights, the starting point for your Southeast Asian adventure is simply a matter of what makes the most sense for your itinerary.

Other things being equal, flying directly into Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok is probably cheaper than flying to Chiang Mai International Airport. However, buses can be unreliable if you are in a hurry, and trains from Bangkok to elsewhere are not as dirt cheap as you might think, so do cross-check promotions on budget airlines like Air Asia and Nok Air with the cost of other forms of transportation before you go.

Among Chiang Mai’s international connections are flights to and from cities in Burma, China, Laos and Malaysia, as well as Singapore. Chiang Mai Airport is rather charming and manageable as far as airports go, so if anything beyond the safety of Bangkok’s duty-free shopping makes you nervous, fly to Chiang Mai for a low-key, soft-entry arrival.

The Chiang Mai ocean.

You can also immediately take a bus or train from Bangkok directly to Chiang Mai (and vice versa), without ever really having to “be” in Bangkok. For those on a strict budget, it might be smart to end with Bangkok as a few days in the city can eat up your wallet if you’re not careful with your finances.

Numerous daily buses leave from Bangkok’s Northern Bus Terminal near the Mo Chit BTS, and take anywhere from 9 to 12 hours depending on the time of day and traffic (600-700 baht). Trains depart from Bangkok’s Hualamphong train Station near the Hualamphong MRT Station, and take approximately 11 to 15 hours (270 to 620 baht for seats; 880 to 1,460 baht for sleepers).

Chiang Mai is the unofficial capital of northern Thailand, and is an easy drive or plane ride away from Chiang Rai, Udon Thani, Pai, to name a few, and the border of Burma and Laos. Kan Air, a domestic airline serving the northern Thailand region, has daily flights around the region. If you only have a short time to travel and want to start up north for some rugged adventures, it makes sense to start in Chiang Mai.

If livin’ the life on the islands is your number one priority, then Bangkok should be your first stop. From Bangkok, you can take buses, trains and planes to places like Krabi, Phuket, Ko Samui and launching points for Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Phi Phi, and many other mini-paradises. Buses leave from Bangkok’s Southern Bus Terminal, Sai Tai Mai, which was flooded in late October but is now back and running. Trains to the south also leave from Hualamphong. More detailed directions on how to travel from Bangkok to the islands can be found here.


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