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Chiang Rai

Getting there and away


Chiang Rai International Aiprort is 8km out of town and has no public transport options other than tuk tuks. To get from the airport to anywhere means a trip into the centre of Chiang Rai and then a bus out again. The alternative bus terminal is that south of town, but only to get a bus to Chiang Mai or Mai Sai (VIP buses). There is no airport bus, so the alternatives are to arrange a pick up by the hotel you are booked into or use one of the tuk tuks. Why the airport authority has not deemed public transport as being important to passengers is a mystery.

While Chiang Rai is classified as an International Airport, at the moment it serves only domestic flights. THAI and AirAsia fly to Bangkok Suvunabhumi (BKK), One-2-Go flies to Bangkok Don Muang and SGA (Nok Air) flies to Chiang Mai.


    Chiang Rai has two bus terminals, leading to confusion about which buses go from where to where. There are three categories of buses. The top of the range is the 24-seater VIP, which has reclining seats, loads of space, blankets, water and a small snack for passengers en route. Five or six companies ply the route between Chiang Rai and Bangkok daily, which costs iabout 940B and takes about 11 hours, terminating at Mo Chit bus station in Bangkok. On the way there is a stop just outside Phitsanulok, where a lunch or evening snack can be had. Keep your ticket as the perforated part is your inclusive meal ticket.

    The air-con 'ordinary' bus is comfortable enough, but nothing as good as the VIP. The same journey and departure times apply and the free lunch ticket is also included in the regular price of around 620B.

    The third option is the government fan-cooled bus but the less said about that the better. It's very cheap at 180B, but trust us, it's worth spending the extra.

    The VIPs and ordinary buses have good air-con, which the drivers turn to zero, and very loud TVs. Ear plugs and a scarf are useful additions to the travel bag.

    To Bangkok:
    All the Bangkok buses go from and arrive at the old central Terminal One. The booking hall has the various operators' ticket booths and there are some more on the opposite side of the road. The counter clerk will show you the available seats and book you in. The VIP service is very efficient. It can be worth booking the ticket a day in advance to get your favourite seat. If travelling alone, you can have one of the single left side seats as there are only three across.
    VIP Daytime services: Depart 06:30 to 09.30
    VIP Night services: Depart 18:30, to 20:30

    To Chiang Mai
    The main bus service to Chiang Mai is run by The Green Bus Company and they use the new Terminal 2, 6km south of Chiang Rai. It's partly because the service comes from Mai Sai, but most see it as inconvenient. Songthaeaws take passengers from the new terminal to old and they are probably delighted. The Chiang Mai service has three categories, A (ordinary), X and X VIP. As above, the VIP has just three seats across, and is very comfortable. Journey time is three hours.
    Departs: 09:00, 09:30, 13:15, 15:30 and 17:45.

    The A and X Class buses leave more regularly but given it's a relatively short journey the need for the VIP bus is less important. These buses do get full quickly on the day, so if possible booking a day in advance is a good idea.

    Fares to Chiang Mai are 260B for VIP, 169B for the X and 106B for A class.

    Bus to Mai Sai
    The Mai Sai service operates from both Terminal 1 and 2. If a Green Company VIP bus is required then go south for 6km and get one of the buses coming through from Chiang Mai -- but then you have to head north again. This is why many just choose to go to Terminal 1 and use the fan-cooled green bus (not to be confused with the Green Bus Company.) These look old and tatty but in fact many are brand new and it's just that they have been using the same style and colour for ages -- so why change? The seats are plastic and very close together, making it difficult for anyone over 5 foot to sit comfortably. The best seat on the bus, apart from the driver's, is the one at the back on the right, which has lots of legroom unless parcels get piled up. Cost is 39B each way for the one-hour journey. The bus will be stopped and searched at two checkpoints on the way to Mai Sai. They are really on the lookout for Burmese illegals, but say they are searching for drugs. The bus terminal is 6km out of town so a songthaeaw is needed to get to the centre and the border with Myanmar. Just dive into one with all the other passengers. Fare is 20B.

    For visa runners, the border at Mai Sai is quick, easy and cheap. The Burmese authorities will issue a one-day permit to explore the border town of Tachilek. It deserves about 20 minutes, but the duty free is quite good. Fee for the permit is 500B. You leave your passport at the Inward office and collect it about 20 minutes later (minimum) from the Outward office on the opposite side of the road.

    Remember that a land crossing into Thailand now only gets you a 15-day stay. Even if the visa issued at an airport gave you 30 days, this will be cancelled and the 15-day visa becomes the one you have to work to. Overstays are charged at 500B per day.

    Bus to Chaeng Saen and Chiang Khong
    The buses for both go from Terminal 1 and are the same style and comfort level as the Mai Sai bus. They leave at regular intervals. Journey time to Chaeng Saen is an hour and a half, while Chiang Khong is two and a half hours. Fares are 39B and 66B respectively.

    The Chaeng Khong bus is red, not green, and goes from Stand 1. Mai Sae and Chiang Saen go from Stand 7.

    Bus to Fang
    One bus a day goes to Fang and some of the best trekking areas in Thailand. This region has the most genuine of the tribal villages, being so close to the Burmese border. There are sections described as 'border sensitive' where foreigners are not encouraged to go.

    The bus for Fang leaves from the central bus station at 08:00. Fare is 95B for the three-hour journey.

      Getting Around

      The Toyota air-con taxi is nowhere to be seen in Chiang Rai, nor are motorbike taxis. The options for getting around are to walk, rent a motorbike, rent a bicycle or use tuk tuks. The songthaews coming into town from the outskirts are often full, but you would only use one of these to go out of town to places like Big C, or north to Ban Du. Tuk-tuks charge around 40B from the edge of town to the centre, and this jumps to 60B or even 80B if you ask for the Clock Tower. If the driver is not sure what you mean by Clock Tower, say Tick Tock Tower -- that seems to work.

      Having the TAT map with you helps to point out the places you may want to go, as it is in Thai and English script. Bicycles can be rented from Fat Free Bicycle on Paholyothin Rd, next to the intersection with Rattankhet, for 80B a day. Staff are very helpful and speak good English.

      Almost all travel agents will arrange motorcycle rental. Ask for a helmet as apart from the safety issue, the police do have crackdowns on non-helmeted motorbike riders occasionally. For those looking to go further afield, car rental is easy. The main car rental companies are in Chiang Rai, but there are plenty of alternatives where you don't have to leave a massive deposit on a credit card. Cash up front and a copy of your passport is sufficient to get a good size car for 1,000B a day. Cars are generally new, and you will see them out in the streets with 'For Rent' signs on the roof.

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