How to get to Northern Thailand
Nestled in a Northern basin of woodlands and mountains, the former capital of Lanna kingdom, Chiang Mai is a city with infinite charm. Gorgeous ancient wats and chedis – some of them dating back to XIII century – dot the city. Forest monasteries hide in the mountains and hills. Colourful markets bursting with OTOP products, flavoursome Northern Thai cuisine with unforgettable khao soi, welcoming and friendly locals and endless choices to live through unforgettable experiences, no matter whether you are just on a short 2 day visit or on a month-long trip. There is plenty to take in in Chiang Mai, from temples, museums, galleries and waterfalls, to quaint coffee shops, epic clothing malls and a unique night-life scene for party goers and music enthusiasts alike.
You will enjoy Chiang Mai, that is for sure.
Getting to Chiang Mai
Overland travel to Chiang Mai is easy and convenient: numerous buses link the northern capital with major provincial centres of the country. From the capital Route #1 Bangkok–Chiang Rai brings you as far as Lampang, where you switch to Route 11 Lampang–Chiang Mai, which goes all the way to your destination. The northern line of state railway of Thailand is a 751km long stretch from Hua Lamphong station in Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Depending on the means of transport you choose, the whole journey lasts anywhere between 9 and 14 hours.
From Bangkok to Chiang Mai by bus
Getting the bus to Chiang Mai from Bangkok is easy, affordable and comfortable enough to sustain you through the long journey. Chiang Mai bound buses originate from the Northern and Northeastern Bus Terminal (Mochit). With a lot of companies (e.g. Bangkok Busline, Siam FirstNew Viriya, etc.) serving the route and departures throughout the day you have plenty of options. Most buses leave after 8pm arriving early in the morning the next day. Note that in peak seasons (i.e. during Thai festivals like Songkran in April or Khao/Ok Phansa in July/October etc.) it is wise to book in advance. Prices vary depending on the level of comfort of the bus. If you can afford paying some extra baht, opt for VIP coaches with 24 seats (from 800 THB) which ensure enough space both for your legs and elbows. But even the cheapest buses from Bangkok (from 500 THB) are comfortable enough to sleep through the whole journey.
A word of comfort: Mochit Bus Terminal is enormous, but there is a lot of staff to help passengers to find their way. You will be caught right at the entrance and directed to the right platform.
From Bangkok to Chiang Mai by train
An overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is a classic Thailand experience. Tickets do sell quickly (especially lower berths), so book well in advance. The trip takes a little bit longer compared to the bus journey, roughly twelve hours, but is significantly more comfortable. The first and second class compartments are well equipped for comfort with seats that fold out into bunk beds (avoid the top bunk if you are claustrophobic). There are both fan and AC 2nd class sleepers, so check when you book. To travel like a king, buy the 1st class single sleeper which costs over 2000 THB per person but does not limit your privacy in any way. There are also 2nd class fan seats (about 600-650 THB) which are to be considered only in case there are no other options left, as with an extra 100 THB you can get a fan sleeper, but add 200 THB – and travel with an AC.
You may as well choose travelling by day as the route is filled with beauty as it takes you through mountainous regions and sprawling countryside that often seem untouched by civilization when viewed from the windows of the moving train.
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.
From Bangkok to Chiang Mai by private taxi
Leave for Chiang Mai directly from your hotel any time of the day. It may prove a good option for those travelling in a group of friends. A 9-seats Toyota Commuter costs THB 13,200 and takes about 9 hours to travel between the two capitals. The roads are generally smooth, there are gas stations with clean toilets and convenience stores along the way, and the scenery is great.
From Bangkok to Chiang Mai by plane
With several low cost carries selling tickets from Bangkok to Chiang Mai at as low as THB1000 and bringing you to your destination in mere 1½ hour, you may want to consider flying between the two cities instead of spending the whole night on the move travelling overland.
Thai Lion Air, an associate of the Indonesia-based Lion Air company, makes as many as 10 return flights between Bangkok and Chiang Mai daily. Airfare starts from THB1000 and up, depending on the date and the time of the day you wish to fly. The most busy periods sell well before the travel date, but normally even a couple of days prior to your desired date of travel there are deals under THB2000 to catch. 15 kg of checked-in luggage and 7 kg of cabin luggage are already included into the ticket price. The earliest flight takes off from Bangkok Don Mueang Airport at 8.55am and the last one – at 9.50pm with eight other options in between.
In Bangkok Lion Air is based in Don Mueang International Airport to the north of the capital. To get there, use airport shuttle buses (routes A1 and A2). A1 starts from Morchit bus terminal and A2 originates at the Victory Monument, calling en route to Sanam Pao, Ari, Saphan Kwai and Morchit BTS stations (THB30). The latter is also served by A1 route. Travel time depends on traffic and is from 60 to 80 minutes. There are commuter trains between Hua Lamphong train station and Don Mueang airport, too. Trains take about 50 minutes to get from the railway station to the airport and are always a secure bet. Operating time is from 4.20am till 10.25pm.
A major gateway to Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai International Airport is one of the four busiest airports in the country operating daily domestic and international flights from/to Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Seoul and more. Chiang Mai Airport is located quite close to the city centre (just about two km), which makes flying to Chiang Mai even more reasonable: you are not going to spend much time and money getting to your hotel from the airport.
Note that many hotels in the city provide free transfer from the airport but it should be ordered in advance. Otherwise you can catch a taxi, a songthaew or a tuk-tuk to get to the centre. Taking into consideration the distance, the cost of the ride may seem a bit exaggerated, but in absolute figures it is still peanuts (about THB150).
Tip: Chiang Mai Airport is also used as a hub by Kan Air, a domestic airline which serves among the others some of the most amazing destinations in the north of Thailand, including Pai and Mae Hong Son. It is worth considering flying to these towns as not every traveller is able to survive a seriously winding road from Chiang Mai to Pai and from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son.
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 bright colourful 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.
Getting to Chiang Mai by car
If you have a car there are two routes to get to Chiang Mai from Bangkok. The quicker and shorter one is to go to Nakhon Sawan, then turn left before you get into the city to highway number 1. You will pass Khamphaeng Phet, Tak and Lampang. If you love pizza stop in Lampang and go to the Riverside restaurant there. Better don't visit the elephant park between Lamphang and Chiang Mai for riding on the gray giants, there are better places to get in touch with elephants. After a total distance of about 700 kilometer you will arrive in Chiang Mai.
The second route is slightly longer, but rewards you with smaller roads through big forests. Drive up to Nakhon Sawan, then take the highway to Phitsanulok (117). Continue on highway 11 and you will reach Lampang and then Chiang Mai. In Phisanulok you have two more alternatives. If you turn right towards Phetchaboon you will pass the 'Switzerland of Thailand', a nice area with very relaxing resorts. In Phetchaboon you can visit Khao Koh, the mountain that has one place where your car will slowly roll up the hill. You stop, you turn off the engine and in neutral gear your car will slowly start rolling up the hill.
If you turn left you can visit the city of Sukhothai with its historical park. Rent a bicycle at the park entrance and enjoy the atmosphere of the well preserved 700 year old temple ruins.
If you decide to go by bus it will take you about 10 hours, the train will take about 14 hours. Traveling such long distances over night will safe you the costs for one night in a hotel. There are many airlines that fly to Chiang Mai, but you would miss a beautiful trip that way. We recommend to take the plane back, especially when you are heading down south towards the islands.
.. is a city that offers so many attractions that you will hardly be able to see all, even if you stay there several months. What we will try to inform you about are the things that you might not find in your guide book. But let's start with the common things first. People say you need to do three things in Chiang Mai: eat Khao Soi, a delicious rice noodle dish with many ingredients, visit Boo Sang where the colorful umbrellas are handmade from paper and visit the temple on the mountain, Wat Doi Suthep. On weekdays there are not so many people there. If the sun shines you can make beautiful pictures of the golden chedi. If you take one of the red songtaew taxis please keep in mind that the way down is a bit more expensive then the way up.
Khao Soi is made from rice noodles in a thin yellow curry, quite similar to the Massaman style. It is a soup-like specialty and mixed with deep-fried crispy noodles and boiled egg noodles. Usually on the side you will get shallots, banana, lime and pickled cabbage. Don't take the oil-fried ground chilies if you can't stand the extreme spicy taste. Coconut milk is used to soften the taste and make it less spicy. You can often order Khao Soi with chicken or beef, sometimes also the veggie version.
Then there is Boo Sang, a village near San Pathong where they produce the paper umbrellas / parasols and paint them since over 200 years. It is a very interesting process and at the umbrella factory on the right side, close to the junction, you can follow every step of the production. The Sa paper is made from the bark of the mulberry tree. There they would also paint wonderful motives on the cover of your mobile phone or on your clothes. If you have a bag, t-shirt or shorts you want to make unique - bring them and you do not have to buy something there. The village of Baan Tawai near Hang Dong is very similar to Boo Sang, with loads of souvenirs and wooden furniture. It is cheaper than the night bazaar in the city, but Boo Sang we like better.
The Chinese-style Wororot Market can be found near the Narawat Bridge over the River Ping. On Sundays there is a big street market inside the old city, starting from 7 p.m. until midnight. On Saturdays there is the walking street market (called Thanon Khon Doen) on Wualai Road. The night bazaar opens every day in the early afternoon and closes at night. A lot of different things are sold there, but you need to negotiate prizes. Do not expect the Louis-Vuitton Handbags or Versace jeans to be original. Many shops sell the same things, so you can ask for a price and then move on and ask another shop. There is a Chinese Money Changer shop about 50 meter from Tha Phae road coming on the right side of the night bazaar street which usually has the best exchange rates in town. If you reach the end of the night bazaar, cross the junction at Phantip Plaza and continue for another 300 meter. Behind the big hotel on the left side you will see the 3D street art museum 'Art in Paradise'. Bring your camera, because you can step into the 300+ paintings on the ground, walls and ceiling and get some really nice or funny pictures.
If you love animals and you would like to do something good, please visit Care For Dogs in Chiang Mai (Hang Dong District) or the Elephant Nature Park in Mae Taeng. The park is not cheap, but you will be rewarded seeing smiling elephants without hooks, chains or fences. They could easily run away, but they love to stay there. In the afternoon you might be able to go swimming in the river with the gray giants and brush their back with a big broom. The park offers day trips or you can stay and volunteer for a while. Something you will never forget. A bit further down behind the park on the same small road some shops offer white-water and bamboo rafting. While bamboo rafting is very slow and relaxed (one could say it's boring), the white-water is a bit more challenging. It is not really that white unless you come after there were heavy rainfalls in the mountains.
If you like to go swimming please Google 'Grand Canyon Chiang Mai'. This is a hidden gem in the north and not many people know about it. Clear and clean water, almost nobody there during the weekdays when the sun is out (Thais don't like to get tanned). Be careful and don't jump from the walls into the water. A recently opened coffee shop can be found at the entrance.
If you can drive a scooter or want to rent a car this loop is very nice: CM - Hang Dong - Samoeng - Mae Rim - CM
It takes about 3 hours and there is almost no traffic on weekdays. You will pass stunning view points, you can discover a hidden cave (which is a bit difficult to find), a very nice big coffee shop 20 km before Samoeng, strawberry fields in Samoeng and then there are many activities like bungee jumping, shooting ranges, ATV and buggy rentals, go-carriage, paint-ball and some parks, restaurants etc. near Mae Rim. With a scooter or car you can also go up the mountain and explore Wat Doi Suthep on your own. Please always wear a helmet, drive carefully and do not drink alcohol and drive!
Let's talk food...
Some people say there are more pubs and restaurants than people living in Chiang Mai. We would like to recommend a few special places that we enjoyed.
Inside the old city is a vegetarian restaurant called Taste from Heaven, the best vegetarian restaurant in the north. They have a Facebook page with their address and a map. The owner speaks good English. They also do very good cooking classes.
The biggest pizza is served at The Dukes, where you can also find fantastic spare ribs. Huge portions, no need for a starter. It is on the other side of the river, between Narawat bridge and the old iron bridge. Another branch is at the night bazaar road, next to McD.
The most beautiful food is served in the Mix Bar and Restaurant at the end of Nimman Hemmin Soi 1.
At the corner of Soi 6 (opposite Tesco Express) you can find a small shop called Smoothie Blues, where you can have the best breakfast in town. Don't try their mango 'smoothie blues' - you might get addicted to it.
In the small soi between Nimman Hemmin Soi 11 and 13 is Sumo Sushi. Japanese food Thai-style, not expensive. A few meters away is the beer factory with a huge selection of imported beers and a bit further down the street to Soi 9 is a Japanese Yakiniku Grill. The grill is build-in to the table and you prepare your food yourself.
A place you should not miss is Yummy Pizza on Canal Road. It is a bit outside, but offers very tasty food and sometimes really good life music. The owner of the restaurant is your contact person for everything about Muay Thai boxing.
The former 'Rainforest Restaurant' Khao-Mao Khao-Fang is on road 3044. It is one of the most beautiful restaurants in Chiang Mai. Better sit near the lake, because the waterfall on the other side is quite noisy after a while. They also serve food inside the air-conditioned coffee shop.
Temples in Chiang Mai
Beside Wat Doi Suthep on the mountain there are many many other temples in Chiang Mai. There is Wat Phra Sing inside the old city, there is Wat U-Mong with its caves and a huge fish pond near Chiang Mai University. Another nice temple is Wat Doi Kham near the night safari. Not many tourist know this place. From here you have a very nice view over the city (on a clear day).
Shopping in Chiang Mai
Central Festival is a huge new shopping mall on the superhighway. The Robinson Airport Plaza is also nice and easier to reach. Maya is usually crowded with students from the nearby university.
If you plan to stay longer in the city you better rent a place than staying in hotels or guest-houses. Air-conditioned studios can be found for a monthly rental price of about 100 Euro, but condominiums inside the city or in the Nimman Hemmin area are much much more expensive. You will be much better off by renting a house in one of the housing estates (which usually come with security, pool, gym, clubhouse etc.), as houses are cheaper in rent than apartments.
Attention: the Zoo and the Night Safari are charging double entrance fees to tourists. We recommend not to support such behavior and avoid places like this.
Most of the city is mapped on Google Streetview, so you can explore some areas already on your PC.
If you have time you might also want to visit Chiang Rai. Chiang Rai has two very nice temples. Wat Rong Khun, the white temple and Baan Dam, the black house. Both are worth visiting, but it will take you 4 hours by car to get there. If you plan to stay one night in Chiang Rai: the Le Meridien Hotel in CR has a wonderful Sunday brunch.