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Chiang Mai – Travelguide

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Last Update: December 2020


Of all the destinations in South East Asia, Chiang Mai is definitely one of my favorites. I just keep coming back and every time, leaving is the hardest thing.

If you chose to head to the North of Thailand then chances are you’ll end up in Chiang Mai. The capital and the province that share the same name are not to be missed for its unique culture and stunning surroundings.

You chose well.


Green rice paddies with a mountain backdrop
Rice paddy field in Northern Thailand




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Chiang Mai General Info


Although the city is over 700 years old, “Chiang Mai” literally means “New City”. The name was chosen when it succeeded “Chiang Rai” as the new capital of the Lan Na kingdom in 1296. Nowadays, it remains the most important city in the area. It’s actually the largest city in Northern Thailand, but still relatively small with less than 200,000 people calling it home. However, the metropolitan area of Chiang Mai has a population of around 1 million.


Tha Phae gate in Chiang Mai
Posing at the Old City, Tha Phae Gate

Chiang Mai has a lot going for itself, making it a popular place to live for workers from across the country, as well as relocated middle class Bangkokians and foreign expats alike. The city is also listed prominently on the itinerary of international and domestic travelers. Tourism is booming and has been for a long time with growth percentages above 10% year on year.

This destination is likeable for any kind of traveler, whether you’re a city dweller, a culture buff or into adventurous activities. It’s the kind of place where you turn one corner to walk into a brand new shopping mall. Turn another and encounter a group of chappy faced, hill tribe minority women, teeth red from chewing betel-nut or smoking a huge homemade stogie.


Two Akha women having fun in Chiang Mai
Akha hill tribe women photocredit: @kevinlj.com/ethnic-minorities-gallery



Reasons (not) to visit Chiang Mai


5 Reasons to visit Chiang Mai

  • The “old city” of Chiang Mai still has that bohemian feel. Something that even the tourist hordes have not managed to spoil. The area is labelled as a “Thai artistic cultural conservation zone” and therefore has development restrictions. Most of the important city temples are situated here, as is the Sunday market and plenty of bars and restaurants;

  • The surroundings of Chiang Mai are stunning. Mountains, jungle, forest, rice fields, rivers, waterfalls, ethnic minority villages, temples, you name it;

  • Chiang Mai festivals are the best! Songkran (Thai new year) in April, Loy Krathong (lantern festival) in November and the Flower festival in February are really something special;


Flower festival in Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai flower festival


  • The hills and mountains around Chiang Mai are home to many different ethnic hill tribe villages that can be visited for a look into the unique history and culture of the tribes;

  • There are more than 300 temples in the Chiang Mai province. Of course it’s near impossible to visit them all and you shouldn’t, but there are a few that shouldn’t be missed.


4 reasons not to visit Chiang Mai

  • From March through early April, the air in large parts of Chiang Mai province are polluted with smoke. During this period farmers are burning their land to prepare it for the coming season. The fires create a thick smoke that lingers in between the mountains. Not only is this a problem for anyone with a respiratory condition, the haze also blocks the beautiful hilltop views;


  • There are no beaches. Thailand is of course famous for its beaches, but they’re nowhere to be found in Chiang Mai. The nearest Thai coast is 600km away, so you’ll have to settle for the hotel swimming pool or the occasional waterfall;


Smog in Chiang Mai
Smog in Chiang Mai
Waterfalls for swimming
Waterfalls for swimming
  • Although Chiang Mai city is one of Thailand’s larger cities, it is not to be compared to some of the South East Asian giants like Bangkok, Hanoi and Kuala Lumpur. If you came to find a cosmopolitan atmosphere, turn around. Chiang Mai remains a provincial town with a provincial feel;



  • If you’re pressed for time, Chiang Mai might not be a good idea. The city deserves at least 2 days and another 2 or more for the surroundings. Actually, I would say that 1 week is ideal to really appreciate Chiang Mai



Best time to visit Chiang Mai


Weather

Weatherwise the best time to visit is from November to March, as the temperature is more moderate and rain is no issue. However, keep in mind that burning season with lot’s of air pollution sometimes already starts by mid February. Of course, this period is also peak season, so expect higher rates for accommodation and more crowds.

Events

The Loy Krathong festival in November sees an influx of international, as well as domestic tourists. Chiang Mai has a large capacity of hotelbeds, but for this period it might be wise to book your accommodation and transportation to Chiang Mai in time.

So, when to go

Actually, the shoulder season is a good time to visit Chiang Mai since hotel rates are more friendly and the large crowds have somewhat subsided. Sure, in March and April temperatures are rising, but the humidity is relatively low and not a lot of rain yet. Rainy season starts mid May and starts to let up from October with the temperature also becoming more bearable again.


Still, you shouldn’t avoid Chiang Mai just because you think it might be too warm or too wet. You’re in Thailand after all and it’s bound to be hot and wet in the entire country. Book a guesthouse with a swimming pool for cooling down, bring an umbrella for the rain (or buy a poncho for THB30) and don’t go trekking in the mud.

Every now and then, floods do happen in Thailand



Chiang Mai festivals and celebrations


If Chiang Mai is on your itinerary and you are able to time your visit with one of the three major festivals, you’re a lucky guy/gal indeed. And you thought the city was lively and entertaining on a normal day!

  • Flower Festival: Floral floats, all beautifully decorated with thousands of indigenous flowers boasting Buddhist and local themes, gliding through the streets in a colorful Friday parade. The floats head for the festival grounds at Suan Buak Haad park in the Southwest corner of the old city. Here, they will stay on display for the rest of the weekend. Music and dance performances continue until late and the streets around the park are blocked for a flower and botanical market.

  • Songkran: Probably the biggest festival in the whole of Thailand. The religious ritual of washing Buddha images to do away with bad deeds has grown into an intense, nation-wide water fight! In the early morning the Thai will go to the temples to make merit. After, all hell breaks loose. Bottles, bucket, cans, or water pistols, choose your weapon!

  • Loy Krathong: Pay your respects to the Goddess of water by releasing a small floating, candlelit vessel onto the river or lake. Bad stuff will float away and you are ready for new beginnings. The whole of Thailand joins in this ceremony, lighting up all waterways.

    Chiang Mai also has Yi Peng (the end of monsoon season) attached to Loy Krathong, where it is custom to float away your worries into the air with a candlelit lantern. You should see the night skies filled with thousands of lit lanterns, it’s magical. Fortunately the environmental concerns are seriously being addressed. More and more, biodegradable materials are being used for the floats and lanterns.


Loy Krathong lanterns in Chiang Mai
Magic in the sky



Things to see/do in Chiang Mai


One thing is for sure when you visit Chiang Mai, you won’t be bored, it’s impossible. There’s so much to see and do in the city alone, you’ll be craving some relax time. More interesting sights await beyond the city, especially if you’re into nature.

I have compiled a shortlist of the highlights in Chiang Mai. Things you shouldn’t miss even if you’re just here for a quick visit.


Things to see/do in Chiang Mai City

Old City

About 1.5km square in size, the old city of Chiang Mai used to be surrounded by walls and moats for protection from outside enemies. Nowadays, the moat is still there and some minor parts of the wall and the city gates are reconstructed.

This area remains the cultural heart of Chiang Mai with significant temples, museums and markets. Several concentrations of guesthouses, restaurants and bars add to the lively feel. On the other hand, the old city is large enough to also feature quiet neighborhoods for those travelers seeking a good night’s sleep.

Temples

It’s temple galore in Chiang Mai and especially in the old city. Out of all the temples here, don’t miss these three:

  • First is Wat Chedi Luang. Even though it was damaged by an earthquake and therefore missing 30m off the top, it remains impressive. The “temple of Kings” used to house the sacred Emerald Buddha before it was moved several times to finally end up at Wat Phra Khaew in Bangkok. Entrance: THB40;


Wat Chedi Luang in Chiang Mai
Wat Chedi Luang
  • Second is Wat Phra Singh, Chiang Mai’s most revered temple and probably the most appealing to visitors, because of it’s beauty. The temple grounds are pleasant and large enough to justify an enjoyable stroll. Entrance THB20 to enter the main hall;


Wat Phra Sing in Chiang Mai
Wat Phra Singh
  • Third must see temple is Wat Chiang Man, the oldest of the three dating back to the 13th century. A bit smaller than its famous counterparts, but certainly not less beautiful. The Lanna style temple is home to a stone gold-painted Buddha statue and a crystal Buddha statue. Both have great meaning for Thai Buddhists. Entrance is free.


Wat Chiang Man in Chiang Mai
Wat Chiang Man

Museums

There is a surprising large number of good quality museums with two of them standing out:

  • National Museum: Not exactly in the center of town, but also not too far out. The museum succeeds in providing a thorough and interesting overview of Chiang Mai from prehistorical to modern day times. Renovated in 2017, with (English) explanations. Opening hours are Wednesday to Sunday 9am-4pm, closed on Monday and Tuesday. Entrance is THB100;

  • Chiang Mai Historical Center: More history of Northern Thailand and Chiang Mai, but with a slightly different approach. The center is conveniently right in the middle of the old city, so there’s no excuse to skip it. Opening hours are Tuesday to Sunday from 8.30am to 5pm, closed on Monday. Entrance is THB90.

Markets

  • Night Bazaar: Huge open air market full of minority hill tribe arts and crafts, but also the usual t-shirts, knick knacks, trinkets and lot’s of food. The bazaar is aimed at tourists so forget about super cheap deals even if you know how to bargain. Instead, come for the atmosphere, the stroll and the food. Open every day from 5pm to 12am;

  • Sunday Night Market: Once every week the Ratchadamnoen Road from the Tha Phae gate into the old city is transformed into a marketplace with souvenirs, clothing and handicrafts. The temple grounds on either side of the street are transormed into open air food courts where street food vendors cook up a storm. Opens on Sundays from 5pm to 10pm;


Musicians in Chiang Mai
Traditional music at the Sunday Market
  • Saturday Night Market: Also known as the Wualai market. Same as the Sunday night market, but on Saturdays (duh), though not as large and with less crowds. The market is located just outside the old city near the Southeast Pratu Chiang Mai gate on Wua Lai Road. Opens on Saturdays from 4pm to 11pm;

  • Warorot Market: A large indoor market made up of two buildings connected by a footbridge on Wichayanon Road. Outside, lining the street are more stalls that spill over onto the side streets as well. What used to be an exclusively local market, gradually became popular with domestic tourists. More and more, international tourists are also finding their way to the market. Some locals complain about tourists driving up the price levels, but for now they’re still lower than anywhere else.

    I admit, for me as a tourist this market is very interesting. It’s fun to watch the locals going about their shopping at the fresh market, even if it means getting there before sunrise. Opens every day from 4am to 6pm.


Warorot Market in Chiang Mai
Anything you want is for sale at the Warorot Market

More things to see/do in Chiang Mai city

There are a million other things to see/do in Chiang Mai city. Join a cooking class and learn how to cook like a Thai chef. Enjoy a relaxing or if you prefer, an intense Thai massage. Watch a Muay Thai Boxing fight and see the locals betting on their favorite fighter. You can visit the largest zoo in Thailand or go shopping in the new and modern Maya shopping mall.


Things to see/do around Chiang Mai

Doi Suthep-Pui National Park

Leave the city from the West behind the zoo and you’ll immediately find yourself in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. There are several attractions here with the undisputed highlight being the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep. It’s a magnificent temple perched 1073m high up the mountain with fantastic 360° views over of Chiang Mai and its surroundings.


Wat Phra That Doi Suthep in Chiang Mai
Magnificent Wat Phra That Doi Suthep

You will have to conquer 306 steps up to reach the temple, which is not too strenuous even in the heat. People with bad knees needn’t worry as well, there’s also a cable car that can take you up. The temple opens to the public every day from 6am to 8pm. Entrance fee is THB30, cable car THB20.

Another attraction in the park is the royal family’s winter residence Phuping Palace (or Bhubing Castle). You can only visit the royal gardens, which are well maintained and filled with flowers. Opening hours are everyday from 8.30am to 3.30pm. Entrance is THB50.

Furthermore, the park features a number of waterfalls, small temples and the ethnic Hmong hilltribe village at Doi Pui. All in all, you can spend anywhere between half and a whole day at Doi Suthep-Pui National Park. Your own transport would be the most convenient means to get there, but alternatively you can charter a Songthaew in town or at the park entrance. Or, if you’re pressed for time, spare yourself the research and transport headache and just book a tour.


Visit the sacred temple of Wat Phra That Doi Suthep on a 4-hour private tour. Climb up the mountain for panoramic views from the stupa, and visit the Hmong hill tribe village at Baan Doi Pui. Insurance included. Book your tour to Doi Suthep-Doi now!


Lake Huay Tung Tao

If you feel the need to get out of the city, but don’t want to get active, Lake Huay Tung Tao is the perfect place to enjoy a peaceful moment by the water. Just 12km out of town this picturesque lake is perfect for swimming. The views over the water and rice fields with dark mountain silhouettes looming in the distance are gorgeous.

Ample restaurants have set up private thatched cabins along the water where they serve you local Thai specialties in a simple setting. If you feel like it, make a stop at the statue park full of giant straw animal statues. Quaint and very instagrammable. The restaurants roughly operate from mid morning until sunset. Entrance to the lake is THB50.


Statue park in Chiang Mai
King Kong in Thailand

Elephant Sanctuaries

I was surprised by the large number of elephant sanctuaries around Chiang Mai. Not all of them, or maybe even none of them, meet all the necessary ethical standards. The point is to create a natural environment for former working elephants and to let them roam free. Unfortunately this is not possible.

Elephants that have spent their lives in captivity are not able to survive in the wild by themselves anymore. Moreover, they are used to living close to humans and will therefore not shy away from human contact, making it a liability to let them roam free.

Funding for the sanctuaries is often raised by offering tourists to spend time with the elephants. Participants pay money to feed and bathe the elephants. Not ideal, but I guess that as long as the animals are treated well it’s the lesser of two evils. Sadly, there are still operations that exploit elephants for personal gains and maltreatment is not uncommon.


Elephants in the wild
Most ideal would be to let the elephants roam free in the wild, but unfortunately that’s impossible.

I can’t tell you which are the “good” sanctuaries and which are the “bad”, I simply don’t know. I would like to say that you shouldn’t go at all, but that would maybe leave the elephants without food, protection and care. All I can say is, do your research. Ask around and search online to find out if you’re dealing with an ethical outfit. For example, if they offer to ride the elephants, all alarm bells should go off.

More things to see/do around Chiang Mai

The surroundings of Chiang Mai are a playground for adventurous activity seekers. Hiking is of course the number one activity, but there are also possibilities for mountain biking, rock climbing, rafting and kayaking. For more speed, rent an ATV or buggy and drive into the jungle.

I’m not your mother, but allow me to provide you with some good advice. If you plan to engage in adventurous activities, make sure to have the right travel insurance. One that covers medical health abroad, including evacuation and repatriation.

The excellent zipline operation “Flight of the Gibbon” set up camp an hour from Chiang Mai city. It’s not the cheapest, but they do meet all the safety requirements, a rarity in Thailand. The zip lines run straight through the jungle and if you’re lucky you might even spot a few gibbons. They offer a package that includes transportation to and from your hotel, 3 hours in the park including lunch and a walk through the forest to see a waterfall.



Near Chiang Mai for one or multiple day trips

Chiang Mai is also a great jump off point for one-day or multiple-day trips in Northern Thailand.

For instance, the Mae Hong Son loop starts and ends in Chiang Mai. You can go to the summit of Thailand’s highest mountain at Doi Inthanon National Park. Bathe in the hot springs of San Kamphaeng, visit the bohemian village Pai or behold the famous White Temple in Chiang Rai.




Where to stay in Chiang Mai


Wow, so many accommodations to chose from, enough to stress me out! Ok, take a deep breath. First, start by deciding on which area you would like to stay in. After that, I’m pretty sure that each area has a style and level of accommodation to everyone’s liking.

Below is a list of accommodations that I recommend. I personally stayed at each and every guesthouse or hotel from the list. Actually, I stayed at many more accommodations during my multiple visits to Chiang Mai, but sadly not all of them were good enough to make the list.

Old City

This is where the most action is in terms of cultural sites, as well as restaurants and nightlife. Great area to stay if you’re only visiting for one or two nights, you’ll never have to leave the area. Also good for Chiang Mai first-timers or if you just like to party!


Trigong Residence
Dirt Cheap = up to THB500
No frills family run hotel in the Northwest corner of the old city. Relatively quiet environment, yet plenty of restaurants nearby and easy access to the ring-road. Furniture and equipment (fridge, aircon) are a bit dated and the place lacks some atmosphere maybe. Then again, rooms are a good size, clean and comfortable. Some even have a balcony and there’s a nice open air seating area in the courtyard.



TJR Boutique House
Mid Range = from THB1000 to THB2500
Excellent hotel in an ideal location. Just 200m from the Tha Phae gate, the Sunday market and steps away from restaurants and nightlife, yet very quiet. We ended up staying for almost a full month. Breakfast, staff, cleanliness, room, wifi and facilities were all perfect. Not the very cheapest, but real value. Contact: 26 Rajchadumnern Road, Soi 1, T. Sriphoom, A. Muang, Chiang Mai 50200, Tel: +6653326525



Night Bazaar and the Ping River area

Between the Eastern wall of the old city and the Ping river is the famous Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. You can either opt to stay right in the middle of the Bazaar madness, or a bit further out, but still close, at the tranquil Ping riverside.


Nap in Chiang Mai
Budget = from THB500 to THB1000
We were very pleased to find this budget hotel. It’s modern and comfortable plus they keep the place tidy. The English speaking staff is really friendly, but the biggest asset is the vicinity to the Night Bazaar. Just steps away from an overwhelming amount of shopping, entertainment and food options.


Anantara Chiang Mai Resort
High End = THB6500 and up
I couldn’t fault this place if I wanted to. Staying here is not something I could normally afford, but we were fortunate to be gifted a weekend for our anniversary by good friends. However, if I had the money I would gladly spend it here. Plain and simple, it’s really that good, even for spoiled travelers.


Nimman Road

Chiang Mai’s trendy, hip and happening part of town. Shopping malls, coffee shops, vegan eateries and hipster bars all around. The average accommodation in this part of town is certainly a step up from the typical Thai ramshackle guesthouse and so is the price level. Even dorm beds are twice the usual. But agreed, they deliver!


Hug Home I
Budget = from THB500 to THB1000
One of the more affordable options in the area, but not less in quality. Strategically located in the heart of Nimman road, close to everything. The rooms are spacious, comfortable and have everything you need, incl. a fridge and microwave. The owner was very friendly and supplied us with great food tips. We really felt at home here.



Outside Chiang Mai City

Maybe you are more into nature or the countryside and you don’t want to stay in the city. However, you don’t want to be too far out, because you have business there. If you don’t mind the commute, the upsides of staying outside of town are obvious. Wonderful nature and/or rural environment, sometimes with an authentic local vibe.


Le Cocotier
Budget = from THB500 to THB1000
What a wonderful place in the middle of rural nature with stunning views and loads of activities. The rooms are large and comfortable, the (local) food is outstanding and the vibe is like you’re staying with family. This is were you escape from the bustle of Chiang Mai. About 50km, 1hr10min by motorbike to Chiang Mai downtown.



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Where to eat in Chiang Mai


Chiang Mai is hardly the place where one would go hungry. Pretty much every streetcorner has an eatery present, or two, or more. Even the most picky eater will find something to his/her liking as the food choice is endless. Cosmopolitan Thai, Northern Thai, Isan, Chinese, Burmese, Laotian, Vietnamese, Indian, Japanese, you name it. But also Western(ized) food is on the menu, whether it’s pizza, burgers or high end French cuisine.

Hipsters are not forgotten, there are numerous trendy coffee shops serving cafe mocha, macchiato and frappuccino. Establishments that specialize in healthy vegan food are booming. Unfortunately, they also represent some of the more expensive options.

These are but a few of my recommendations:

Old City

Chang Phueak Pork Leg Rice or Khao Kha Moo, what’s in a name? This place, no more than a stall really, serves mainly, oh surprise, pork leg over rice. It is however, Chiang Mai’s undisputed show stopper, made famous by Anthony Bourdain’s visit and with good reason. Fall of the bone pork, like pulled pork actually, cooked till it’s juicy and tender in Chinese five spice and served over rice with a medium boiled duck egg. THB60 for a large and TBH30 for a small order. Service starts at 5pm until 12am. Look for the ladychef with the cowboy hat.


Khao Kha Moo in Chiang Mai
World famous in Chiang Mai

SP Chicken “Gai Yang with Som Tam and Khao Niao”, or “Grilled chicken with green papaya salad and sticky rice” is a typical Isan dish and the specialty of SP Chicken. Isan you say? Isn’t that Eastern Thailand, while Chiang Mai is in the North of Thailand? True, but that doesn’t mean that we should pass on a perfectly delicious grilled chicken should we? THB150 for a whole bird, opening hours from 10am to 5pm.

Another restaurant serving delicious Gai Yang is Cherng Doi in the Nimman Road area. Their chicken is almost as good as at SP, but the sit down area is more inviting and they open until 8pm.

Khao Soi Khun Yai When in Northern Thailand, “Khao Soi” is the one iconic dish that cannot be missed. Crispy and soft egg noodles with chicken or beef in a curry broth, enriched with coconut milk. Wouldn’t you agree that the best person qualified to prepare Khao Soi must be grandma? Well, as a matter of fact, “Khun Yai” means “Grandma”, so there you go. Fast service and only TBH35 for a steamy bowl, but hurry, opening hours are only from 10am to 2pm.


Khao Soi in Chiang Mai
Fragrant Khao Soi

Around Chiang Mai

B Samcook Often, when a restaurant reaches a high ranking in Tripadvisor they become overwhelmed and quality drops. Well, not at chef Boy’s restaurant, quality here is consistently high and creative. Not necessarily Thai, but rather a fusion of different Asian cuisines in an upscale atmosphere. Make sure to reserve a table as they are fully booked most nights.

Khantoke is a traditional and ceremonial style dinner in Northern Thailand. The guests sit on the floor and the food is served in bowls placed on small pedestal trays. Typical servings vary, but can include pork curry, steamed vegetables with chili paste, fried chicken, clear soup, pork cracklings and sticky (glutinous) rice.


Khantoke dinner in Chiang Mai
Khantoke dinner – @buddyjourneytourthailand

Chiang Mai features a few restaurants that offer khantoke dinners. They are mainly catering to (international as well as domestic) tourists and often include traditional music and dance shows during the dinner. I admit, some of the performances are a bit cheesy, but the Khantoke dinner at the “Old Chiang Mai Culture Center” is really worth the visit if you would like to experience Northern Thai folklore paired with nice enough food. The show is surprisingly entertaining and they feature halal and vegetarian options.

Markets

Thai markets and their surroundings are always an excellent place for food. They always include a food court and abundant makeshift street food stalls. Rub shoulders with the locals at breakfast. Expect to find many local foods, snacks and specialties.

The Night Bazaar is the superlative of food courts. The Bazaar area is huge, extending over multiple blocks with several markets each with its own food court.

We always did enjoy meals at the food court of the Anusarn market. Huge prawns prepared the way you like it, grilled whole fish and everything from the sea. Yes, I know Chiang Mai is nowhere near the sea, I always wondered about that, lol. Anyway, it all looks fresh and prices are reasonable.


Foodcourt at the Anusarn market in Chiang Mai
Anusarn market foodcourtphotocredit chiangmainews.com

Do keep in mind that the night bazaar is a tourist venue, so contrary to most other markets don’t expect all around authentic dishes and do expect to pay a little more than usual.

Other, more or less “tourist” markets are the Sunday Walking Street Market and the Saturday Walking Street Market (Wualai Market). Still, you can fill your belly here with outstanding Thai food and snacks.

The Warorot Market is also more and more geared towards tourists, but still attracts a large local crowd. Food options here are definitely true to their culinary heritage, I do recommend. For street food, Chang Puak Market is your best bet. Low priced and truly authentic Thai cooking.



How to get to Chiang Mai


Transportation to and from Chiang Mai is abundant and efficient. Other then with your own vehicle, Chiang Mai can be reached by air, train and bus.

Air

Chiang Mai has an international airport with flights to and from several countries in South East Asia. However, most visitors that arrive by air fly in from Bangkok or one of the other domestic Thai airports. Bangkok-Chiang Mai and vice versa is the most important route with multiple flights per day and tickets as low as THB1000.

Visit the Skyscanner website for the full schedule and ticket fares and don’t forget to check the Thailand visa and health certificate requirements.

Train

To travel by train in Thailand can be very convenient and certainly makes for a great experience. The Chiang Mai railway is well connected to Bangkok and further down the South all the way to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia and even Singapore.

The route Bangkok-Chiang Mai is pleasant with some nice scenery on the way. The only thing is that you shouldn’t be in a hurry as the journey can take up to 12 hours. Sure, to travel by bus will be slightly faster (not much), but not as comfortable and certainly not safer. From Hualamphong station in Bangkok the train has stops at, among others, Ayutthaya, Lopburi, Phitsanulok, Lampang and Lamphun before it arrives at Chiang Mai.


Bangkok to Chiang Mai train
The Bangkok-Chiang Mai train is an adventure in itself

There are 6 trains from Bangkok to Chiang Mai every day and you will have a choice between express or sprinter, day or overnight sleeper, as well as 1st, 2nd or 3rd class. Of course prices will differ accordingly. Buy your ticket at the Bangkok Hualamphong station or at the Chiang Mai station. Alternatively, check the schedule and book your ticket online at the 12go.asia or the Bookaway online transportation portal.

Bus

Long distance bus remains the most popular transportation to Chiang Mai by far. Buses are usually in an excellent condition and if you are willing to pay a bit more you’ll be provided with comfortable seats with sufficient space. Also aircon and an onboard toilet are often standard (but not always). Many endure the 10hour bus ride from Bangkok and some will even travel from as far as Yanggon in Myanmar or Luang Prabang in Laos.

Beware of buying your tickets at one of the Khaosan road travel agencies in Bangkok though, there have been several reports of scams, don’t be that guy! A better idea might be to use our transport planning tool below to book your ticket online.

There are two bus stations in Chiang Mai city. Chang Puak (terminal 1) handles provincial destinations, while Arcade (terminal 2 and 3) serves the long distance destinations. For travel out of Chiang Mai it’s possible to buy your bus tickets at the stations, but make sure you buy it the day before.


Book your transport instantly and 100% safe!

Especially during high season and public holidays it makes sense to book ahead to secure your seat(s).

Check schedules and compare prices of bus/ferry/train tickets.

Find your ticket and book instantly. Skip the lines at the bus station!

Powered by 12Go system



Getting around


Airport/train/bus station to downtown

There are metered taxi’s and airport taxi’s available at Chiang Mai airport. The airport taxi’s have a set fare of THB150 to anywhere downtown. Shared minibus service at the car park near exit 1 charges THB100 per person. The cheapest way to get to downtown is to flag down a songthaew or tuk tuk on the main road just outside the airport.

Transport from the Arcade bus station into town is abundant, whether it’s public bus THB15, songthaew THB30, tuk-tuk THB120 or taxi THB150. The same rates are valid for transport from the train station to down town, while the other bus station Chang Puak is within walkable distance from downtown.

Within Chiang Mai city

Distances in downtown Chiang Mai are walkable if you stay in or close to the old city. Even the Night Bazaar is within a kilometer from the Tha Phae gate.

On the other hand, you might want to venture beyond downtown, and you really should. Push bikes (THB40-50p/d) and motorbikes (THB200-300p/d) are available for rent everywhere and very convenient. It’s not for everyone though, as traffic can be chaotic and you’ll have to steer on the left side of the road. Also, check the requirements for driving a motorbike in Thailand as you don’t want to forfeit your insurance policy by not having the proper documents.

Before boarding a tuk-tuk or taxi you should negotiate on the price first, and I mean bargain hard. Tuk-tuk’s and taxi’s in Chiang Mai have a name for overcharging and even the metered taxi’s are using anything but their meters.


At the Chiang Mai bus station
At the bus station
Bicycle in Chiang Mai
Not quite the coolest cyclist

Songthaews are probably the most price transparent as they charge flat rates, but of course they are less comfortable and in most cases won’t bring you door to door. The red colored songthaews are cruising Chiang Mai city, while the other colors have destinations out of town or to the outskirts. Ask your guesthouse for help in identifying the colors and routes.

If you have a data plan on your mobile, using a taxi app is really worth considering as it eliminates the issue of negotiating. Moreover, they are cheaper than normal taxi’s and offer better service. Grab is the most popular and widespread taxi app in Thailand.

Around Chiang Mai

It’s perfectly possible to charter a tuk-tuk or a red Songthaew for your private use. Just talk to the drivers on the road or ask your guesthouse to mediate.

Motorbike rentals are really handy for exploring beyond Chiang Mai city. They are cheap to rent and refuel and above all they are very versatile. Renting a car is also an interesting option. Many major international car rental companies have a branch in Chiang Mai. The conditions are up to international standards and the rental fees are much lower than in Europe or USA. The local rental companies offer even better bargains, but you should do your research to find the trustworthy outfits. We used ChiangMaiWheels, cheap, clear communication and super service.



To rent a car in Thailand and self drive is an excellent way to explore this beautiful country. Discover beautiful destinations and gorgeous beaches without having to rely on public transport. The ultimate sense of freedom. Read: “How to rent a car in Thailand”. A step by step guide.


Tours

Some independent travelers might be horrified by the idea of booking a tour. I get it, I do, where is the adventure in that? However, if you don’t have a lot of time, a tour might actually not be a bad idea. It allows you see all the highlights in a condensed time frame without the hassle of arranging your own transport. Also, for jungle treks and alike it’s always wise to at least hire an experienced local guide.



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