Getting there and away
Chiang Rai’s Mae Fah Luang Airport is located 10 kilometres north of the city centre and it’s airport code is CEI. For a small town it is surprisingly busy with no less than five airlines competing for the sole, direct domestic route to Bangkok. These are budget airlines; Nok Air, Thai Smile, Thai Air Asia and Thai Lion Air plus the self-styled ‘boutique airline’, Bangkok Airways. The only other direct destination we could find, though they do advertise connecting flights to Singapore and Hong Kong, was a daily China Eastern Airways flight to Kunming which singlehandedly justifies the airport’s International status. Any other weird and wonderful flight codes and schedules you may see, such as Qatar, Eva Air, Air Berlin are just code shares.
Generally Nok, Air Asia and Lion Air fly into Don Muang whilst Bangkok Airways and Thai Smile, (a subsidiary of Thai Airways), fly into Suvanabhumi, but this is worth checking. (Some Thai Smile flights actually turn out to be Thai Airways.) Flights run from around 09:00 until 21:30 with Nok seeming to have a preponderance of morning flights, Lion mid day and early afternoon and Air Asia in the evening. Bangkok and Thai Smile’s departures are spread out throughout the day. For the day we checked we found an astonishing 22 flights though this does vary according to season and day of the week. Prices also vary considerably depending upon day, time of day and how far ahead you book but the lowest we came across was 1,090 for Air Asia going up to 3,500 plus for certain Smile and Bangkok Airways departures. You can check up to date schedules and prices on the respective airline websites.
In theory if you have an international arrival in Thailand with connecting flights to Chiang Rai you will pass immigration in Bangkok while in the opposite sense you’ll submit to formalities in Chiang Rai. The airport does have a small duty free zone.
The arrivals area has both metre taxis and airport taxis though the former may be harder to find. They also advertise ‘lady taxis’ though we’re not sure how many of those there are around. A metre taxi to downtown will set you back around 100 baht while an airport taxi is a flat 200 baht to any city destination. In the opposite direction you may be able to negotiate with a taxi or tuk-tuk for 150 or so and if an hotel or guesthouse calls one for you then they’re generally 200 again.
The old downtown bus station next to the night bazaar is currently being rebuilt with completion, if all goes well, sometime in 2017. At the time of writing, (October 2015), several buses were still stopping around the edges of the demolished station, and Green Bus Company maintained an office there, but once construction work gets fully into swing we’re not sure how long that situation will last. Many local services; Phayao, Chiang Khong, Chiang Saen and Mae Sai were still parking buses here but the majority of services - long distance in particular - have moved to the new bus terminal, terminal 2. This is located just south of town on route 1 and songthaew services between the two terminals cost a flat 20 baht per person.
Southbound local buses, including Green Bus’s Chiang Mai service stop, at terminal 2 on their way out of town but northbound, to Chiang Saen or Mae Sai for instance, do not as these will have originated in terminal 2 anyway. Apologies if this is confusing and we do expect the situation to change again soon so, for now, check at terminal 1 but be prepared to head down to terminal 2.
The Transport Company (999), Sombat and Nakhon Chai Air all have offices adjacent to the new terminal. Both terminals are surrounded by plenty of cafes and grocery stores but again, in the case of the old station, this may not last.
All the Bangkok buses go from, and arrive at, the new terminal, number 2. Sombat Tours, Nakhon Chai Air and the government run 999 all offer daily services, and have offices across the road from the main terminal building. Nakhon have a 19:00 departure every evening with an additional 18:00 one on Fridays and Sundays. These cost 685 baht and arrive at Mor Chit.
Sombat have a choice of VIP, 1st class or regular air-con costing 868, 651 and 558 respectively. These also terminate at Mor Chit and will set you down at any major destination on route e.g. Phitsanulok or Nakhon Sawan.
Other long distance services
Issan specialists Nakhon also run buses daily to either Ubon Ratchathani or Chonburi/Pattaya/Rayong, (in that order). Ubon will set you back 899 baht and this bus also stops at Surin and Si Saket, departing Chiang Rai at 15:30 and 16:00. The Pattaya buses depart at 13:35, 16:15 and 17.08 with a slightly cheaper service leaving at 16:16. Prices for Pattaya are 750 baht or 785 baht. Sombat’s long distance offerings include one running to Khon Kaen, Udon Thani and Nakhon Phanom on the Lao border. If that’s not far enough then hop on a bus from Mae Sai heading for Hat Yai and Sungai Kolok on the Malaysian border.
The routes below are scheduled bus services from reputable companies and not package deals organised by travel agents specifically targeting foreign backpackers. (There is a difference.) Whilst we’re still not fans of such lengthy bus rides, and we can’t guarantee quality of service, you’re less likely to be ripped off, fall for deceptive/false advertising or receive bad service, from the ones listed below than a Pai or Khao San travel agent.
Not to be out done on the long-distance stakes 999 come in with a Chiang Rai to Lao route stopping at Bokeo, (Huay Xai), Luang Nam Tha, Oudomxai and Luang Prabang. Prices are 220 baht, 500 baht, 675 baht and 900 baht in that order and departure time is 10:30 daily. They assured us there was no change of bus involved and maybe being a government owned company gives them some bureaucratic advantages that other companies don’t have?
Green Bus have topped the lot though buy introducing a Chiang Rai to Kunming, (capital of China’s Yunnan Province), service as well as to Luang Prabang and even Vang Vieng. They do admit to two changes for the former; Huay Xai and at the Lao/Chinese border at Boten and one change at Huay Xai for Luang Prabang. Luang Prabang bound buses will also drop you at Luang Nam Tha or Oudomxai while you’ll have to change in Luang Prabang for Vang Vieng. Chinese buses will also stop at Jinghong.
The Lao bound bus departs at 10:00 and the China bus at 10:30 though there is an evening service at 17:00 for Huay Xai only. Kunming is claimed to be 20 hours for 1,820 baht; Luang Nam Tha 5 hours and 280 baht, Luang Prabang 11 and 640 and Vang Vieng 17 hours 920 baht.
To Chiang Mai
The main bus service to Chiang Mai is run by the excellent Green Bus Company who have ticket counters at both the new and old bus stations. You can also book on-line or purchase tickets at 7-elevens. They offer standard, (air-con), 1st class and VIP options but note some Chiang Mai buses are direct while others pass by Phayao and Lampang. Direct to Chiang Mai is a little over 3 hours. VIP buses have 3 seats per row only so you can get a single seat if you book in advance.
Fares to Chiang Mai are advertised as 280 for VIP, 180 1st and 140 standard air-con and times are scheduled as follows;
VIP; 08:00, 09:00, 13:00, 15:30, 17:15.
1st; 10:55, 11:50, 12:35, 14:05, 14:30, 15:15, 16:30 and 17:45.
2nd class air-con; 06:30, 08:15, 09:30, 11:15, 13:30, 15:45, 16:00 and 17:30.
There may well be extra evening buses at weekends and holidays though having said all that neither the published hours, nor prices corresponded to reality at the ticket counter and we paid 263 baht for a 12:30 VIP ticket so, check in advance.
As we mentioned these locals services were still stopping at the old bus station as of October 2015 but this may not continue. These are older, fan buses but fine for short trips. Note, we noticed buses with Phu Chee Fah written on them but for most of the year they only go as far as Thoen. You would need to change there and take a local songthaew, though during high season – particularly weekends - some buses do go all the way.
Chiang Khong; hourly - 65 baht taking 2.30 hrs
Chiang Saen; hourly – 37 baht taking 1.30 hours
Fang, via Tha Ton; several daily departures – 95 baht taking 3 hrs.
Mae Sai; every 30 minutes - 39 baht taking 1 hr
Phayao; hourly – 66 baht taking 1.30 hrs
Green Bus Thailand T: (053) 266 480. http://greenbusthailand.com/
Nakhonchaiair (Nakhon Chai Air) T: (053) 773 522. http://nakhonchaiair.com/
Sombat Tour T: (053) 771 688. http://www.sombattour.com/
Minibuses to Phayao and on to Phrae depart, in theory, every 30 minutes between 06:00 and 18:00 costing 63 baht for the former and 165 baht for the latter destination. Buses leave from bus station number 2 and there’s no advanced bookings for this service!
Chiang Saen minibuses depart hourly costing 45 baht and taking a little under 1 hr 30 minutes while for Phu Chee Fah there are minibuses departing at 07:00 and 14:00 taking around 4 hours for 150 baht. There may well be more of the latter during high season and weekends.
Public boats on the Kok River leave Chiang Rai for Tha Ton and destinations upstream daily – weather permitting – at 10:30. Tha Ton is 350 baht per person and Ruam Mit 100 baht. If you prefer private hire then a boat seating five to six (foreign sized) persons will cost 2,500 or 700 baht to Ruam Mit only with a return from the latter costing an additional 100 baht. The boat pier is situated just on the right if you cross Mae Fah Luang Bridge on the way out of town. For a full description and details of the Kok River boat trip see our Tha Ton section.
Chiang Rai boat pier T: (053) 750 009
Chiang Rai has plenty of tuk-tuks and metred taxis though we do find some of the tuk-tuk drivers to be rather unscrupulous and these guys may well require some serious bargaining with. Normally around the centre shouldn’t be more than 60 baht going up to 120 baht for more distant locations such as Central Shopping Plaza or Chiang Mai Beach. They may well also try a ‘per person’ rate which doesn’t really seem appropriate for tuk-tuk travel but succeeds in upping the price considerably.
Conversely we sympathise with taxi drivers since the 35 baht standard fare and additional 2 baht per kilometre doesn’t work for rides within a small city such as Chiang Rai. While most we found were prepared to turn on their metres we reckon they definitely deserve a tip on top. Longer taxi journeys work out approximately as follows: Ban Du, (Black House) 80 baht, Airport 80-100 baht, Wat Rong Khun around 100-120 baht, Mae Sai 630 baht, Mae Salong 960 baht and Phu Chee Fah 1,700 baht. (Note all prices are approximate.)
For local destination such as Wat Rong Khun or Baan Dam you can also use the local songthaew services which link up the surrounding villages.
Taxi bookingT: (053) 773 477
Motorbike and car hire
Half the cars parked in central Chiang Rai seem to have ‘For Rent’ signs on their roofs and even in downtown Chiang Mai we’re not sure we’ve seen such a concentration of motorbike hire shops. It does perhaps reflect the fact that most Chiang Rai sights are actually outside of town but also means that with such competition prices are very low. Rental places line Jedyod Road and surround the Wangcome Hotel as well as extending down much of Phaholyothin Road.
More hire shops are to be found wherever there’s a concentration of accommodation plus many guesthouses and hotels offer the service themselves. Motorbike rental, especially if you’re hiring for several days, starts as low as 100 baht per day during high season, but do check breaks, lights etc. If you don’t want to leave your passport as deposit then 2,000 baht is required for a bike. Prices go up to 250 baht during high season for a new scooter and cars between 1,000 baht and 1,200 per day. We’re sure most shops are pretty much the same but we used Bank Rentals on several occasions and found them helpful and efficient.
Numerous guesthouses and resorts also have bicycles available or you can pick up a better quality one at Fat Free Bicycle on Phaholyothin Rd, next to the intersection with Rattan Khet, for 100 baht per day upwards, depending upon which model you prefer. Staff are very helpful and speak good English.
Bank Car Rent Chiang Rai 1025/13 Jedyod Rd. T: (084) 804 1352;(099) 376 4039. Open daily 08:00-19:00
Fat Free Bicycle Phaholyothin Rd. near clock tower. T: (053) 752 532. Open daily 09:00-18:00
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