Chiang Mai International Airport — airport code CNX — is Thailand’s third busiest after those in Bangkok and Phuket with nearly 3 million annual visitors and around 140 flights a week. The vast majority of those flights link this northern hub to the capital itself but direct flights head to other Thai cities as well as to international destinations — that is, you don’t need to change planes in Bangkok.
You have quite a choice when it comes to Bangkok-Chiang Mai flights. Thai Airways has a schedule that seems to change month to month, so there’s not much point listing their schedule here. Roughly speaking, they offer eight to 10 flights per day from 06:15 until 21:30. They’re not the cheapest, with a one-way ticket going for around the 3,500 baht mark, but if you were flying from Bangkok to a European destination with the same carrier then that extra domestic flight is a cheap add on.
The next most frequent carrier coming into and out of CNX is low-cost AirAsia. AirAsia has a schedule that’s even more confusing and changeable than Thai, and highly variable prices, as with all low-cost carriers (and these days often even with legacy ones). They run four or five flights during low season then seven or eight during high season, with prices dependent upon day of booking.
We’ll take a gamble on Bangkok Airways, which seems to have a schedule more regular than the others. Flights are for now at 08:00, 12:05, 17:00, 20:30 and 22:00, though the latter doesn’t run on Mondays.
All flights take approximately 50-55 minutes but note that while Thai and Bangkok Airways fly to Suvarnabhumi, Nok Air fly into Don Mueang and plans are afoot to move all the lowcost carriers there in the near future. (Air Asia are due to move in October.) Finally, to confuse matters further, Bangkok Airways codeshare with Air France, Eva Air, Etihad and Air Berlin, plus some others we’ve probably overlooked, so if you see Air France flying to Chiang Mai it is in fact Bangkok Airways.
With Thai you can obviously connect with numerous national and international destinations. Bangkok Airways connects to flights to Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Rangoon, Ko Samui, Krabi and Trat, and have direct flights to Phuket and Ko Samui (though not daily so again — please check). Forget any low-cost carrier connections.
Penultimately on the domestic front is locally based Kan Air which schedules trips to other north Thai towns such as Mae Hong Son, Pai, Nan, Phitsanolok and Chiang Rai. These are respectively: daily, daily, four times per week, four times per week and three times per week, though don’t take that as written in stone. They also apparently plan to extend their fleet and range of destinations later on the year. Finally an outfit calling themselves Thai Smile claim to have begun Chiang Mai-Bangkok and CNX-Samui flights as of July 2012 with a further route to Macau of all places.
Moving on to international flights, AirAsia also fly direct to KL, but Bangkok Airways do not, as per certain rumours, fly direct to Cambodia anymore. Air Bagan have, at the time of writing, twice weekly flights from Chiang Mai to Rangoon but not at present, as also rumoured, to Mandalay. (Yes Air Bagan are owned by a dodgy Burmese general but no, their planes are not a liability, and are brand new craft with good service.)
Also no longer an accident waiting to happen is upgraded Lao Airways. Lao Airways runs planes once a day into Luang Prabang, (not literally, but …). Surprisingly they are one of the most regular schedule-wise so leave — in theory — at 15:00 for a one-hour flight costing $150-180 depending upon dates. (Visa is available on arrival.)
Other international flights which are scheduled but may or may not happen depending on the whims of their operations managers are: Dragonair with high season-only connections to Hong Long, Silkair, a Singapore Airlines subsidiary which flies occasional direct flights to Singapore, and aforementioned Thai Smile to Macau.
The airport itself is conveniently close to downtown in the southwest corner of the city, so you get a pleasant view of Doi Suthep as you arrive. It’s accessible from most city hotels in around 10-15 minutes and indeed many spots in Chiang Mai will offer free pick-up at the airport or at least cheap transfers. As for getting into the city, plenty of metered and official “airport taxis” offer their services at the airport. Meter cabs should charge a flat 120 baht into town as do the airport taxis, which is fair enough since as we explained in our local transport post they’d end up having to take you all the way for 50 baht. The airport taxis will also pick up anywhere in town for 150 baht if you book ahead and we’ve always found them to be very reliable — T: (053 201 307).
The airport taxi rank is at the far end of the building so take the extreme left exit as you come out of arrivals.
There is no point in walking out onto the road since any tuk tuk you find will want at least 100 baht to take you into town.
CNX has two terminals — international and domestic — and they are connected in the one building. This is slightly confusing as check-in with few airlines apart from Thai actually having check-in desks in international, so if you’re travelling on an international flight with Bangkok Airways, for example, you will have to check in at domestic. For all connecting flights to foreign destinations though, boarding is at international and you will complete immigration formalities at CNX. Coming the other way is also confusing since you will pass immigration at the Bangkok transit section but will have to exit at international anyway at CNX since your luggage will be directed there. (But you won’t have to do immigration again.)
Both domestic and international departures have snack bars and coffee shops; international has a smoking lounge but domestic doesn’t, and international also has some basic duty-free shopping. The main terminal lobby has numerous chain eateries, more coffee shops, souvenir stands, a post office, pharmacies and all the airline and tour offices.
It’s not a particularly hectic airport so a one-hour check-in time should be ample. Bon voyage!
By Mark Ord
Last updated on 25th September, 2013.