Wander through the ruins of the great Ayutthaya Kingdom which rest in harmony with the city of today and then jump onto a train to Chiang Mai to admire sublime beauty of the Lanna Kingdom. Temples glittering with golden mosaics and quaint forest monasteries, stylish cafes and haute cuisine restaurants, friendly homestays and designer boutique hotels; tribal villages, foggy mountains, chilly mornings and colourful paper parasols – you name it – Chiang Mai never fails to win the hearts of its visitors.
Getting to Chiang Mai from Ayutthaya
You can cover some 600+km from Ayutthaya to Chiang Mai by bus or by train. Buses leave throughout the day and are convenient enough to make rather a longish 8-hour journey to the northern capital. Trains are slower but let you sleep with more comfort all night through.
From Ayutthaya to Chiang Mai by bus
There are frequent buses to Chiang Mai from Ayutthaya’s Northern bus terminal which is located 5 km east from the Old City. All the buses from Bangkok pass there and you can try to buy tickets right on the spot. Buses take from eight to 9 hours to reach Chiang Mai and cost from THB500 to THB900, depending on their category.
From Ayutthaya to Chiang Mai by train
There is something right about travelling to Chiang Mai by train. Even if with bus travel you may have more choices, boarding a railway carriage heading to the northern capital is a quintessential Thai experience. Ayutthaya sits on the northern railway line which links Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and all the trains leaving Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong train station inevitably pass through Ayutthaya.
There are three night trains which are the most convenient option to travel from Ayutthaya to Chiang Mai as they save the precious daytime of your journey as well as some baht which you would have spent on a night in a hotel. Train #9 departs from Ayutthaya at 7.44pm and arrives to Chiang Mai at 7.15am. Schedule-wise it is one of the most convenient options, the second one being train #13 which leaves at 9.06pm and arrives at 8.40am. Both of them cover the distance in 11½ hours and have the most popular 2nd class air-conditioned sleepers (THB 1,106) which sell out really fast during the peak season and holidays. There is also a ladies only 2nd class sleeper at the same price in #9, which is a great choice for women travellers, especially those who prefer traveling solo. Besides, #9 offers a 1st class air-conditioned sleeper (sleeps two) at THB 1,648, and #13 has a private 1st class single sleeper at THB 2,148.
Note that even the second class sleepers give you enough privacy as each berth has curtains which can be pulled together forming a cosy little bedroom of your own. Thus investing in a more expensive ticket may prove unnecessary.
The third night train (#51) leaves Ayutthaya at 11.35pm reaching Chiang Mai at noon. It takes just an hour longer but note that if you do not have your accommodation booked during the peak season, you may have hard times trying to get one on the spot after midday, as the best rooms are sold out quickly early in the morning as the previous night’s guests check out.
The fastest train from Ayutthaya to Chiang Mai is a 9.47am #7. It brings you to the destination in less than 10 hours (arriving at 7.30pm), but it steals you the whole day and has the second class AC seats only. Before committing to such a long day journey, make sure you are really ready to do it. Tickets cost THB 866.
Finally there is a #109 train at 3.17pm arriving to Chiang Mai at 4.05am. It is the cheapest (THB 766 for a second class fan sleeper) but the less convenient option. We recommend considering it only if all the other departures are full.
Tip: There are food vendors constantly patrolling the carriages, so snacks and refreshments are never in short supply, but it is illegal to sell any alcoholic beverages on the train.
The majority of Chiang Mai’s attractions lie within the walls of the Old City. Bicycles are the easiest way to get around and can be rented from nearly every guesthouse. Before setting off to explore the city, check the brakes though, as the city fleet leaves much to be desired. Expect to pay from THB50 to THB100 for an ordinary bike with fixed gear.
Motorcycle: Renting a scooter or a motorcycle (well, a car would also do) is a brilliant way to get around, and there are shops peppered everywhere that hire them out. Getting around this way gives you tons of freedom to approach your holiday however you would like and go exploring; and to stay in Chiang Mai and not go exploring should be a crime. Be prepared to leave your passport as a security deposit. Normally there are no problems with getting it back on returning your vehicle to the rental shop.
Tip: Take extra caution while riding a motorcycle or a scooter to Doi Suthep, the city’s picturesque peak. The combination of the winding road and breath-taking views can play bad tricks on inexperienced riders.
Songtaews: These are big trucks with benches in the back. The red and white ones are good for trips within the city (THB20-40 per ride), and the yellow ones will take you to some of the neighbouring Northern provinces. They are generally the cheapest way to get around, but sometimes require a little bit of negotiation.
Tuk-tuks: These are more expensive that songthaews (rot daeng). Consider chartering one if you are longing for new experience; otherwise use rot daeng. Prices, noise, pollution and safety record do not make tuk-tuks a viable option for every time you want to go somewhere.
Taxis: There are plenty of taxis everywhere. If you are used to the meter taxis of Bangkok, then you should probably know that even though the cabs look the same as they do in Bangkok, none of them use meters. Do negotiate before the ride.
Where to stay
Prices on accommodation in Chiang Mai have risen in the recent years, and it is now next to impossible to find a decent option for THB300; THB1000 being a more realistic figure for a budget room in a guesthouse within the walls. If you choose any of them, you have a convenience of being in the middle of the action close to many attractions; but there are other good options, too. You can look for some pleasant budget accommodation just east of the Old City in Thanon Tha Phae, close to the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. Thanon Nimmanhaemin with all its bars and restaurants is easily accessible from the western part of the Old City. Lodgings outside the city cater for the city veterans or those looking for relaxed countryside feel and are a great choice if your have your own wheels.
It is a good idea to try something different while you are in Chiang Mai. You will for sure visit a fair amount of temples, do some hiking and trekking, or even white-water rafting or rock climbing. Add a zest to your stay by enrolling to a massage class and learning the basics of the Thai massage; doing some volunteering in any of the elephant camps (ask in Elephant Nature Park, to begin with); seeing how those elegant Chiang Mai parasols are being produced; and cruising Thanon Ratchadamnoen on Sunday evening when it becomes an epicentre of local commerce, culture, cuisine and people-watching.
Tip: Chiang Mai is famous for its colourful festivals. Try to schedule your visit to see and participate in some of them if you can. During the first weekend of February the Flower Festival is held, and the city resembles a great blossoming garden. It is all wet for Songkran, which falls on April, 12–14, with revellers pouring water to each other (and passers-by) along the city moat. Loi Krathong, one of the most beautiful Thai festivals, is called Yi Peng in Chiang Mai. Thousands of illuminated lanterns float in the night skies over the city creating an unforgettable picture.