So you’ve got three options for getting to Chiang Mai: road, air or rail. Never liked the first one much ourselves since the busy Bangkok-Chiang Mai highway is not the most scenic part of the country and some of the hell-for-leather drivers can give you a pretty scary ride. Yes, it is the cheapest means and yes, it’s faster than the train, but if speed’s your priority, take a plane and if money’s an issue, the extra few baht for a train fare won’t make a huge difference.
Note if you are fixed on a bus that that doesn’t mean you’re limited to the Khao San tourist buses. Most buses are half decent these days and safety has improved enormously, but there’s still a bit of a cattle truck mentality among staff sometimes and service is frequently better on the regular Thai blue bus companies running out of Mor Chit bus station.
Flight-wise, no less than six airlines now shuttle between Bangkok and the northern capital: Thai Airways, Bangkok Airways, Air Asia, Nok Air, One to Go and Orient Thai — many now code-share with international lines such as Air France. (This site seems to cover most flights).
There are some good deals for the 50-60 minute flight, especially if you can book well in advance, but the third option — rail — can save you a bit of money as well as being a fun way to travel.
There are several price options for the train: 3rd class (best to avoid unless you’re really hard up), 2nd class fan, 2nd class air and 1st class. These also come in night sleeper or day time options, though 3rd class is only wooden seats. While you might just about survive a day train ride like this, the night one is very hard going.
Second-class fan and air-con sleeper trains have pretty comfortable fold down beds, but there’s a lot of debate over the pros and cons of fan or air. Air-con carriages are more expensive and generally a bit smarter, but temperatures vary between freezing and “is the air-con working at all?” As a rule of thumb we’d maybe opt for air-con carriages in summer and fan in winter. (Good, more detailed rundowns of the various carriages can be found here as well as in this Travelfish.org Thai train feature.)
There are also rapid, express and sprinter services to choose from, but beware the rapid ones are in fact slow ones, and sprinters are seated service only — air-con, but no fold down beds. (Try this site for times and prices.)
It’s worth noting that the best parts of the journey scenery-wise are probably the first and last parts, coming through Ayutthaya and Lopburi and then winding through the mountains south of Chiang Mai. This means that if you do take the night train, you’ll still have daylight for most of the best bits.
This was going to lead us on to a rundown on the new Thai rail ‘Bogie Gourmet‘ service, which despite its extremely unfortunate name, is actually quite good deal. But since we’re running out of space here it’ll now be in a separate post to come soon.
By Mark Ord
Last updated on 26th April, 2011.