Photo: Pace yourself.

Transport



Use the quicklinks below to jump to the desired section regarding transport in and around Chiang Mai.


Air

Chiang Mai international airport (CNX) is located to the southwest of the city centre off Mahidol Road, just a 10-minute or foyr-kilometre drive from downtown. It’s a busy airport with some 150 flights a week split between domestic and overseas destinations. In 2016, it served an estimated 2 million passengers.

The primary route is between Chiang Mai and Bangkok, with at least hourly flights scheduled by either the two principal local carriers, THAI and Bangkok Airways, or budget airlines Nok Air, Thai Smile, Lion and Thai Air Asia. Note that budget airlines generally fly into Don Muang rather than Suvarnabhumi International Airport. You’ll also see Emirates, Qatar, Air Berlin, British Airways and several other foreign carriers noted on timetables, but these are due to extensive code-sharing arrangements, primarily with Bangkok Airways. Malaysia, Cathay Pacific and China Eastern Airlines do have their own direct routes to KL, Hong Kong and Kunming respectively while AirAsia also serve the burgeoning Chinese trade with flights to Chongqing and Hangzhou.

As far as international flights go, Bangkok Airways also fly to Mandalay and Yangon in Burma and Luang Prabang in Laos while Silk Air have direct flights to Singapore.

Domestic routes include Phuket, Surat Thani and Hat Yai (AirAsia), Samui (Bangkok Airways), Udon Thani (Nok Air) and Lion Air are proposing Surat flights. Not all the above are daily and vary according to season with often relatively last-minute schedule changes. Prices vary considerably according to airline, day of the week and season of the year—Bangkok flights for instance can go for anything from under 1,000 to over 3,000 baht.

There are two terminals at CNX—domestic and international—with a full range of standard airport food and drink outlets, souvenir shops, massage parlours, exchange booths and duty free on hand.

For transport to and from downtown Chiang Mai, you have a choice of meter taxis and airport taxis for a trip into town or walking out onto the main road and flagging down a songthaew or tuk tuk. Taxis charge a set 150 baht fare to any downtown location. There is also a shared minibus service which you’ll find in the car park outside exit number 1 but at 100 baht per person we can see little advantage when, if you’re unlucky, you could be faced with dropping off people at six different hotels on the way to yours.

All major airlines servicing Chiang Mai have ticket and information desks at the airport and you’ll find travel agents liberally scattered across town. Flights can also be purchased on the relevant company’s websites so check the below for up to date prices and schedules and booking procedures.

Bangkok Airways: http://www.bangkokair.com/.
Chiang Mai Airport taxis: International arrivals and domestic arrivals exit #1; T: (053) 201 307.
Chiang Mai International Airport: https://www.chiangmaiairportonline.com/.
Nok Air: https://www.nokair.com/.
Thai AirAsia: http://www.airasia.com/.
Thai Airways: http://www.thaiairways.com/.
Thai Lion Air: http://www.lionairthai.com/.
Thai Smile: https://www.thaismileair.com/.

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Train

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Chiang Mai is the northern terminus of a single rail line running between there and Bangkok with stops including Lamphun, Lampang, Phitsanolok, Nakhon Sawan, Lopburi, Ayuthaya and Don Muang en route to Hualamphong Station in Bangkok. The service has been much improved in recent times both in terms of rolling stock and tracks and while delays are still frequent, derailments are happily much less so.

It can be a pleasant means of transport if you’re not in a hurry and some interesting scenery can be seen, particularly on the northern section from Lampang to Chiang Mai. Air-con seats aren’t that much cheaper than a budget airline these days, especially when you factor in meals and drinks en route, and it is both more expensive and slower than a bus. It is however more comfortable and safer than the latter.

You will need to purchase tickets in advance and they come on sale 60 days before the date of travel. Online sales are available on the State Railways of Thailand website and Travelfish booking partner 12Go Asia. Travel agents in town will also book and issue tickets for you with an added service fee.

There are four train types on this route: special express, express, rapid and ordinary. The former two usually have 1st and 2nd class sleeping berths and no 3rd class while the rapid has 3rd class carriages plus fan-only sleeper berths. Ordinary is the local train with seats only, no air-con and services all the minor rural stations as well as major points up as far as Nakhon Sawan. There are also air-con daytime trains which come with reclining seats, but no beds, and serviced with inclusive meals.

Approximate times and prices between Chiang Mai and Bangkok’s Hualamphong are as follows:

Ordinary (train #102): Departs 05:00 with no estimated time of arrival, but you’ll get there eventually. Fare to Nakhon Sawan 81 baht.
Special express (sprinter #7 or #8): Departs 08:30 and 08:50 arrives 19:05 and 19:25. Costs 641 baht including meals.
Express (#52): Departs 15:30 and arrives at 05:25. 2nd class fan, upper bunk 531 baht, lower bunk 581 baht. 2nd class air-con upper bunk 751 baht lower bunk 821 baht. (1st class air-con if available), upper bunk 1,253 baht, lower bunk 1,453 baht.
Special express (#14): Departs 17:00 arrives 06:15, 2nd class air-con upper berth 791 baht, lower berth 881 baht, 1st class private compartment 1,953 baht.
Special express (#10): Departs 18:00 arrives 06:50, 2nd class air-con sleeper, upper berth 791 baht, lower berth 881 baht, 1st class upper 1,253 baht, lower 1,453 baht.

Child prices are charged at around two-thirds the adult rate. As a word of warning on the above, though we checked three different schedule and price lists at the railway station itself, each one had different times and train types.

Chiang Mai Railway Station: Charoen Muang Rd, Wat Ket; T: (053) 244 795; http://www.railway.co.th/.

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Bus

Chiang Mai city has two separate bus stations, Chang Puak and Arcade. The former serves provincial destinations (plus Lamphun) and is located in the district of the same name just north of the Old City. Larger Arcade functions as the long-distance hub and is situated in east Chiang Mai’s Wat Ket district. Arcade has terminals 2 and 3 with Chiang Mai’s bus terminal number 1 being Chang Puak.

Chiang Mai province destinations: Chang Puak
Chang Puak bus station is located a short distance behind the Gate of the same name and the usual cafes and convenience stores are available. Destinations reached by songthaew, minibus and bus all depart from the small and congested Chang Puak station. Sample destinations and fares include:

Chiang Dao: Songthaews leave every 7 minutes between 06:30-18:30, cost 40 baht and take 1.30 minutes.
Doi Tao: Buses leave every 2 hours between 04:30-15:30 and cost 70 baht.
Fang: Buses run every 30 minutes between 05:30-19:30 and cost 80 baht. Hourly minibuses depart between 07:30-16:30 and cost 120 baht or 150 baht for a VIP service. The trip takes around 3 hours
Hang Dong, Sanpatong, Chom Thong: Songthaews leave every 7 minutes between 06:30-18:00 and cost 15, 23 and 30 baht respectively.
Hot: Buses run every 20 minutes between 06:30-17:30, cost 49 baht and take about 2 hours.
Lamphun: Songthaews depart every 10 minutes between 06:00-20:30 and cost 18 baht. Minibuses leave every 20 minutes between 06:30-18:30, cost 25 baht and take around 45 minutes.
Mae Ai/Tha Ton: Buses leave every 2 hours between 05:30-15:30, cost 90 baht and take around 4 hours.
Phrao: Buses depart at 06:20, 11:00 and 15:50 and cost 62 baht. Minibuses run hourly between 06:00-18:10, cost 80 baht and take 1.5 hours.

Various other Chiang Mai provincial destinations are serviced by songthaew or bus, but Chiang Rai and Mae Hong Son routes depart from Arcade bus station.

Tha Ton anyone?

Tha Ton anyone? Photo: Mark Ord

Long distance destinations: Arcade
Arcade bus station is split into terminals 2 and 3, with private bus company Nakornchaiair also having their own very plush terminal behind number 2. Terminal 2 is surrounded by cafes, minimarts and coffee shops and there’s also motorbike rental and 24-hour parking facilities on site.

The newer terminal number 3 has similar options within the main building itself. Both have information desks and left luggage facilities.

Numerous companies operate out of this large bus terminal with particularly fierce competition on the Chiang Mai–Bangkok route but the principal services, with widest range of destinations and perhaps best levels of organisation are Green Bus, Nakhonchaiair and Sombat Tour. All three cover nationwide destinations: All stops to Bangkok (such as Phitsanolok, Nakhon Sawan and Ayutthaya) and all major Isaan destinations ( like Udon Thani, Ubon Ratchathani, Surin, Nakhon Ratchasima and Khon Kaen), as well as other northern provinces (such as Chiang Rai, Phrae, Nan and Phayao). Green Bus have regular connections to border crossing towns including Mae Sot, Chiang Khong and Mae Sai.

Some offer “direct” services to southern destinations such as Hua Hin, Phuket, Krabi and so on though we’re not sure how direct these really are. One company—Sasanan—even offers twice-daily Kanchanaburi routes.

The local Prempracha Company, leaving from terminal 2, specialises in the Mae Hong Son destinations of Pai, Soppong, Mae Hong Son, Khun Yuam and Mae Sariang. All of these companies now have English language websites plus online booking facilities, with most accepting payment at any 7-eleven minimart for a minimal service charge. Most of these tickets can also be arranged through your hotel or guesthouse, again with a small commission added.

Many bus services from Chiang Mai can also be booked online through Travelfish partner 12Go Asia.

Along with your choice of bus companies you also have a choice between day and night services. Yes, you do save on a night’s accommodation on the latter, but you’re unlikely to sleep much. You can also decide between various vehicle types such as regular air-con, deluxe and VIP, with various shades in between. Price varies accordingly with the principal criteria being number of seats. The most expensive are 24-seat VIPs with seats that recline horizontally. Many services include snacks, drinks and meals.

Sample destinations include:
Bangkok
This hyper-competitive route is served by a myriad range of providers. We recommend Transport Company, Sombat Tour and Nakornchai as our three first choices. Unless otherwise noted, this route will land you at Bangkok’s Morchit 2 bus station. Tickets can be purchased through the individual websites or with Travelfish partner 12Go Asia

Bangkok: Prices range from 379 to 759 baht depending on operator and class of bus with departures throughout the day.

Northern Thailand
Following are all with Green Bus, though other companies also serve some of these destinations.

Chiang Khong: Departs 08:00, takes 5 hours and costs 395 baht. (Via Chiang Rai.)
Chiang Rai: 20 departures daily, costing 129 baht to 258 baht.
Mae Sai: 10 departures daily, costing 160 baht to 319 baht. (Via Chiang Rai.)
Mae Sot: Departs 08:30 and 13:10, costing 290 baht and taking 5.5 hours.
Phayao: Departs seven times daily between 09:20 and 21:35. costing 111 to 221 baht and taking 2.5 hours.
Nan: Departs nine times daily taking just five to seven hours depending on route and costing 213 to 395 baht.

Mae Hong Son province
Mae Hong Son is solely served by Prempracha Transport. Tickets can be purchased on the spot at Arcade Station, but it is prudent to book a seat in advance as the buses do fill up fast. This can be done via the Prempracha website, or with Travelfish partner 12Go Asia

Khun Yuam: Four departures daily between 07:00 and 14:00 and takes five and a half hours. Fare is 169 baht for a fan bus and 282 baht for an air-con bus.
Mae Hong Son: Nine departures daily between 06:30 and 14:30 plus night bus at 21:00 and takes six hours. Fare is 138 baht for a fan bus, 250 baht for an air-con minibus and 346 baht for an air-con bus. (Via Mae Sariang.)
Mae Sariang: Seven departures daily between 07:00 and 17:00 and takes 3.5 hours. Fare is 104 baht for a fan bus and 200 baht for an air-con minibus.
Pai: Twelve departures daily between 06:30 and 17:30 and takes three hours. Fare is 78 baht for a fan bus and 150 baht for an air-con minibus.
Soppong: Eight departures daily between 06:30 and 14:30 and takes four hours. Fare is 103 baht for a fan bus and 250 baht for an air-con minibus.

Northeastern Thailand
The northeast is served by the government Transport Company, Nakornchai and a number of other private companies. The following sample is from the Nakornchai website. Tickets can also be purchased with Travelfish partner 12Go Asia.

Si Saket: Departs 18:15 takes 16 hours and costs 777 baht.
Surin: Departs 16:00 takes 18 hours and costs 777 baht.
Ubon Ratchathani: Departs 13:15 and 18:00 takes 16 hours and costs 707 baht.

International destinations
A couple of international routes are on offer to Laos (Luang Prabang) and Burma (Myanmar) (Yangon). The first travels to Chiang Khong, Huay Xai and Luang Nam Tha on its way to Luang Prabang. The latter takes you across the border at Mae Sot and stops at Hpa-an on its way to Yangon.

The Luang Prabang service departs on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at 09:00, taking 20 hours to cover the 842 kilometres and costing 1,200 baht which, when we checked was listed as a promotional low season price. They weren’t quite sure for high season but expect to pay around 1,500 baht if you really think travelling all the way from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang in a single hop is a good idea.

Green Bus also runs a service to Yangon in Burma, stopping at Mae Sot and Hpa-an. Departures are daily at 08:30 and whatever their schedule says we reckon it’d take at least 14 hours on a good day to complete the journey. They were slightly vague when we enquired into the nitty gritty but it appears you take the regular Green Bus connection to Mae Sot then a short transfer across the bridge to the Burma immigration office beyond which an air-con bus or minibus (depending upon numbers) is waiting to take you on to Hpa-an, Tha Ton and Yangon. Price is 1,650 baht per person and there’s no reduction for alighting in Hpa-an. That’s around half the price of a one-hour flight from Chiang Mai to Yangon. Taking the Mae Sot bus, walking across the border and hopping into a shared taxi for the two-hour run to Hpa-an would cost you less than half again, so we’re not convinced of this service’s worth any more than we are the Luang Prabang one.

Getting to and from Arcade
There is plenty of choice with public buses, songthaews, tuk tuks and air-con taxis all available at Arcade. There’s a bus stop and route map right outside terminal 2 offering two different itineraries through and around town so there’s a good chance that wherever you’re staying there will be a bus stop nearby. The fare is 15 baht flat. Songthaews also have a 30 baht flat fare to anywhere in the centre of town from Arcade. There’s a welcome tariff board next to the tuk tuk queue and Tha Pae Gate is 120 baht for instance, or Wat Phra Singh 150 baht. The yellow and blue meter taxis also concur on a flat fare and charge 150 baht to anywhere in the downtown area of Chiang Mai.

Arcade Bus Station: 165 Kaew Narawat Soi 5, Wat Ket.
Green Bus: T: (053) 266 480; http://www.greenbusthailand.com/.
NakornchaiAir: T: (044) 261 555; http://www2.nakhonchaiair.com/.
Sombat Tour: T: (053) 246 531; http://www.sombattour.com/.
Prempracha Transport: T: (053) 492 999; http://premprachatransports.com/.
The Transport Company: http://www.home.transport.co.th/.

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Other

Further reading regarding other travel to/from Chiang Mai.

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Getting around

Most of Chiang Mai’s downtown sights are within walking easy distance of each other. We’ve deliberately stuck to convenient, central locations for the majority of both our accommodation and eat and drink selections, concentrating on the Old City and the area between the moat and the Ping River. That means there’s little that isn’t within a roughly two kilometre radius of Tha Pae Gate.

If you'd prefer not to be walking in the midday heat, cycling is another practical way of getting around Chiang Mai and allows you to include some slightly more eccentrically located sites such as Wat Umong, Jet Yot or Huay Tung Tao. Do take care with the traffic and cycle on the assumption that you need to yield right of way to everything but small animals (but maybe you should be kind and let them live).

If cycling is too much effort, scooter hire is a very popular way to get around, but do be sure to be aware of the safety and travel insurance implications of riding unlicensed. Always wear a helmet and if you’ve got a few too many Chang beers under the belt, leave the bike at the bar—it should be there in the morning.

These two aside, you’ll be needing to rely on the the city’s erratic bus service, ubiquitous red songthaews or frequently rather greedy tuk tuk drivers.

Bicycle
Aside from the numerous rental shops, many guesthouses and hotels in Chiang Mai provide cheap (say 50 baht) or free bicycles to guests. It's an ideal way to get around the centre of town and even some nearby out of centre destinations.

A low-key service provided by the municipal council is a bike hire scheme with drop-off and pick-up spots around town. Unfortunately they have a two-tiered pricing system, with a 20 baht surcharge for foreigners. If that doesn't bother you, bike station locations include Worarot, Thae Pae Gate, Chiang Mai Gate, Suan Buak Hat, Chiang Mai University, Wat Phra Singh, Maya plus several others. Rental is 50 baht a day. Bikes are hardly state of the art but looked decent enough to us. Some of the stations are (again in theory) attended, otherwise you’ll need five ten baht coins to get a ride. See their website for details.

Bike@Chiang Mai: T: (095) 787 5012, (086) 395 8064; http://www.bike-at.com.

Tuk tuks and taxis
Sadly Chiang Mai tuk tuk drivers have a rather bad reputation and, naturally with some exceptions, we’d have to concur. They are near uniformly overpriced and many that hang around outside popular tourist sights don’t think twice about overcharging anyone. Negotiate hard and if they don’t come down to what seems to you to be a reasonable rate, just flag down another. (Getting your phone out and muttering Uber is said to be an effective tactic.)

Outside a tourist hotspot it may be more effective to flag down a passing one rather than approaching one of the parked drivers. On the bright side, drivers at Arcade Bus Station are now obliged to abide by fixed tariffs marked on a large poster next to the tuk tuk desk so at least you’re no longer going to be ripped off right on arrival. We didn’t see such a board at the railway station but we were quoted a very reasonable 80 baht to downtown from an elderly driver.

Any ride within the Old City walls should not cost more than 80 baht. One side to the other, say Kad Suan Kaew to Tha Pae, should not set you back more than 100 baht. Tha Pae to the main bus or train station ought to be around the 120 baht mark. There is a tendency to apply a night time supplement. Note that red songthaews ply these major routes anyway, with theoretical at least, flat fares.

There’s quite fierce, and occasionally vicious, competition ongoing between tuk tuk and songthaew owners and taxi firms such as Grab and Uber. If the former offered a decent service and stopped ripping passengers off there wouldn’t need to be.

As regards Chiang Mai’s blue and yellow meter taxis, increasingly common across town, don’t expect them to actually use their meters. Transport authorities have applied what seem close to Bangkok charges in much smaller Chiang Mai so the starting rate is 40 baht with no increase for the first three kilometres. Seeing as how that covers all of downtown it’s clearly absurd. If we were a local taxi driver we wouldn’t put our meter on either! So as per a tuk tuk you need to negotiate; rates ought to be comparable between the two.

Motorbike hire
Like foot massage joints, you’re never that far from a motorbike rental shop in Chiang Mai and consequently rates are very reasonable. Expect to pay 200 to 300 baht per day depending upon the model of scooter, with longer term rentals coming down to around the 150 to 200 baht mark. As you’d expect in low season it’s a lot easier to negotiate a discount. You do not need one for getting around town but it is a very practical means of reaching out of town locations or for onward travel to say Pai.

Before you rent the bike, check brakes, tyres, horn and lights. The rental shop will usually run through a checklist of pre-existing scratches or bumps before you take the bike; go through the checklist with the staff member. Read the small print in the rental agreement carefully and leave a cash deposit as a caution rather than your passport. (Usually 2,000 to3,000 baht will suffice.) If any of the above doesn’t meet your satisfaction then go to another shop—there are plenty more.

Always wear a helmet. Even if in your confused brain it is somehow cool to ride around without a helmet you’ll get stopped by the first police officer who sees you. In 2017 Chiang Mai’s finest regularly set up roadblocks—often on the moat road or major axis but locations change a lot—and foreigners riding bikes are their favourite target.

The rental agency will almost never ask that you are legally licensed to ride a motorbike. If you’re planning on riding without a license, we ask you to read this page on the travel insurance implications of doing so.

As far as local policing is concerned, international driving licenses are not valid for riding a motorbike unless they are endorsed for riding a motorbike (duh!). You are supposed to carry ID at all times, which is another reason for not leaving your passport in the rental shop. Short-stay visitors should get away with a valid driving license from their own country but if you’ve been in Thailand for a longer spell, you are (officially) supposed to have a Thai driving license. Any missing documentation, or of course helmet, results in an on-the-spot fine of 400 or so baht though this of course can vary. (Once fined keep the ticket and you may be okay for a three-day period for the same offence.)

Chiang Mai police also like to test their new breathaliser machines. If you’re over the limit that will cost you a lot more than 400 baht. Note that if the cops do want to fine you they will find a reason and there’s little point in arguing.

Do note that in congested Chiang Mai many streets are one-way and it isn’t always immediately obvious which way is what, so take care. Most of our driving problems have been with other foreigners—unaware of local techniques or weaving around the road not sure where they’re going.

City Bus
Although many locals are not aware of the fact, Chiang Mai city has its own municipal bus service. The service has been on and of for several years and has had to cope with vigorous opposition from tuk tuk and songthaew drivers. These are small, white, air-con buses with flat 15 baht fares. Routes that we’re pretty confident do function are Arcade Bus Station to the Zoo and Arcade to the airport. Known as chiangmaibus, we couldn’t find an English version of their website, although their Thai-language map does claim five or six routes.

Our two attempts at testing it (we did try, honest!) resulted in us getting bored after 30 minutes and hopping into songthaews instead. The hard to find bus stops, in this case outside Computer Plaza, had no shade either, so not ideal for either hot or rainy weather. It seems a bit of a watch this space scenario but if it does get itself sorted out it would be most welcome addition to Chiang Mai’s public transport infrastructure.

Chiang Mai Bus: http://www.chiangmaibus.org.

Songthaews
Chiang Mai’s ubiquitous red covered pick-up trucks—known as songthaews—function somewhere between buses and taxis. They don’t have regular routes or scheduled times but tend to head towards their first fare’s destination making stops and often detours on the way to drop off and pick up additional passengers. Such detours can occasionally be long-winded and you may even sometimes find yourself temporarily heading in the opposite direction to your desired one. You will eventually end up near enough to where you want to go and in theory a flat fare around the city is 30 baht per person. To stop one simply flag it down while to get out press one of the buzzers located on the roof.

Any other colour variation you see are out of town and suburban services, which in contrast do have fixed routes. These are as follows. Bearing in mind prices are approximate and note that while we’ve indicated the respective terminuses you can equally attempt to flag these down anywhere on their routes, too.

Blue: Lamphun-bound, costing 15 baht and leaving from the riverside, Chiang Mai-Lamphun Road by the metal bridge.
Green: Northeast to Mae Jo, costing 15-25 baht and departing from Worarot Market.
Orange: Heading north from Chang Puak and stopping at Chiang Dao, 40-50 baht and Fang, 75-80 baht.
Red: These are also available for private hire—your hotel or guesthouse should be able to help. These are a practical means of transport if you’ve got a group of people together. They comfortably seat eight to 10 adults at a pinch.
White: East-bound, serves Bor Sang/Sankhampaeng, Doi Saket and Mae Taeng. Latter is 25 baht and other destinations 15 baht. Trucks leave from Worarot Market.
Yellow: West bound including all stops to Chom Thong for 30 baht and departing from Chiang Mai Gate though confusingly yellow ones also leave from Chang Puak bus station and travel to Mae Rim for 20 baht.

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Where to next?

Where are you planning on heading to after Chiang Mai? Here are some spots commonly visited from here, or click here to see a full destination list for Thailand.


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