Getting Around in Chiang Mai
Although Chiang Mai is a relatively small city in Northern Thailand, it has a surprising number of transportation options. These range from an international airport that is conveniently close to the city center to eco-friendly cashless bike shares. Whether you use public or private transportation during your trip to the Rose of the North, here are the best methods for getting around easily and quickly.
Red Truck “Songthaew” Taxi
Chiang Mai is famous for its red truck taxis, which are locally known as a “songthaew” or ”rod daeng.” You’ll see this form of public transportation all over the Old City. The drivers do not operate along specific routes. Instead, they go wherever their passengers need to go, stopping along the way to pick up and drop off additional passengers. Hail one over like would a taxi and tell them where you want to go. Fares begin at 30 baht per person for a ride within the Old City’s square moat and increase the further away from the city center you go.
Grab Ride-sharing Taxi
Grab is a ride-sharing taxi booking platform, much like Uber or Lyft, that has made its way to Chiang Mai. This is a great option for people who want to ride in a comfortable, air-conditioned car or truck. It is also convenient if you don’t have access to other forms of public transportation in the event that you are too far away from the city or if you need to go somewhere very early in the morning or late at night. You’ll need to buy a Thai SIM card and download the Grab app in order to book a Grab taxi.
Motorcycle and Car Rentals
It’s easy to rent a car and even easier to rent a motorcycle in Chiang Mai. In fact, many travelers rent motorcycles because the prices are so low and it’s a thrilling way to explore the city and the surrounding countryside. You’ll need a photocopy of your passport to rent a vehicle from one of the many rental agencies throughout the downtown area. While driving in Thailand, the law requires that you have a car or a motorbike international driver’s permit (IDP), so be sure to pack that in your suitcase if you plan to drive yourself.
Chiang Mai has welcomed bike sharing within its walled city. You can find rows of orange bikes at several prime locations such as the Three Kings Monument, Buak Hard Public Park, Tha Pae Gate, and Chiang Mai Gate. This is a cheap and easy way to explore the city if you don’t want to walk but you don’t want to ride a motorcycle, either. To access the bike, you’ll need to download the Mobike app. Then, using a QR code, you can unlock the bike and explore the city.
Chiang Mai International Airport
Chiang Mai’s international airport (CNX) services direct flights from other Southeast Asian countries as well as Australia and Europe. There are also hundreds of daily flights from other major Thai cities, such as Bangkok and Phuket. Chiang Mai’s airport is incredibly close – in fact, less than a 15 minutes’ drive – to the downtown city area. Once you’ve landed and collected your luggage, stand in the taxi queue, which offers set rates and a safe way to get into town.
Chiang Mai Railway Station
Thailand has an extensive railway network that services all regions of the country and their major cities. If you plan to visit Chiang Mai, hop on the Red Line, which begins in Bangkok. Thailand’s trains have first class air-conditioned sleeper trains, second class trains, and third class fan-only trains. The Chiang Mai Railway Station is just east of the Ping River and has daytime and overnight routes.
Chiang Mai Arcade Bus Station
Buses are an excellent way to travel to some of the smaller towns in Chiang Mai and to Chiang Mai’s neighboring provinces. The buses designed for tourists are often air-conditioned and have large seats, especially VIP buses. Tickets can be booked at the ticket office at the Chiang Mai Arcade Bus Station northeast of the Old City. However, it is possible to ask the front desk staff of your hotel to purchase a bus ticket on your behalf for a small fee.
Within the city, you can take a tuk-tuk. These 3-wheeled, motorized cabs are perfect for traveling short distances. Tuk-tuks are great for getting around, but aren’t the best for taking in the sights of Chiang Mai – and after sitting in traffic for a while the smog might start to bother you. Tuk-tuks are usually a better deal than a cab because they cost less, and the drivers don’t think twice about weaving between cars. While tuk-tuks are officially a two-person vehicle, you can usually squeeze in a third – maybe a fourth. We’ve even seen one adventurous driving hauling eight happy people in one tuk-tuk. Be warned, tuk-tuks are not metered like cabs are so you should talk to the driver in advance about your fare.
Like any big city, metered taxis are an easy way to get around the Chiang Mai. These taxis are also available for trips into the surrounding area. Taxis are often the most comfortable way of getting around because they have air conditioning which might make or break your experience when you are sitting in traffic during a hot day. Drivers are supposed to only charge what the meter says, according to the law. However, some drivers will try to turn off the meter, especially if they pick you up late at night. If this happens, you should insist that they turn it on or negotiate a fare before you leave the curb. If the driver refuses, get another taxi.
In some places, you’ll have the option of renting a bicycle, which is a really nice way to get around (not in Bangkok, but you can in Ayutthaya). If you find yourself in a bike-friendly area, or you just see other farangs (the Thai word for foreigners) riding bikes, chances are a bike is the best mode of transportation. It can be hard to find a good bike, and unlike most of the other bargains in Thailand, a bike rental costs about the same in Thailand as it does at home.
Samlors are three-wheeled bike rickshaws similar to the tuk-tuk and are good for traveling short distances. The driver pedals you around – it’s not the fastest mode of transportation, but they are pretty readily available in Chiang Mai. Negotiate your fare in advance with the driver before hopping in.