Bangkok is almost inevitable stop on your way south from any northern destination within the country and further afield. The Thai capital has great overland transport connections with all the provincial centres in Thailand and many minor cities and towns countrywide. Two most useful bus terminals in Bangkok are the Northern and Northeastern bus terminal, aka Morchit, located in the northern outskirts of the city, and Sai Tai Mai, or the Southern bus terminal in Thonburi, on the western banks of the Chao Phraya River. Buses from all northern destinations, Chiang Rai included, arrive to Morchit, from where other northern and northeastern routes originate, but not only: some companies provide direct service from Morchit to Phuket, as well as to some other southern cities. But for a better choice of destinations in the South, go to Sai Tai Mai. Ekkamai bus terminal is useful for all destinations on the Eastern Seaboard, including Pattaya, Koh Samet, Chanthaburi and Koh Chang.
How to get from Chiang Rai to Bangkok
Overland travel from Chiang Rai to Bangkok takes around 13 hours by bus and more if you opt for a combined bus+train journey. Though at first sight there is not much sense in taking a train, in fact sleeping cars remain the most comfortable way to survive a long night journey. If you are planning to get to Don Mueang Airport immediately after your arrival to Bangkok, go by bus: buses from Chiang Rai arrive to Morchit Bus Terminal close to Morchit BTS station from where you can take an airport shuttle bus to Don Mueang Airport.
From Chiang Rai to Bangkok by bus
There is direct bus service from Chiang Rai Bus Terminal 2 in Thanon Phahonyothit to Bangkok provided by several operators. Terminal 2, aka ‘the new bus station’, is located 7 km south of the city centre. The easiest way to get to the new bus station is to take a public songthaew from the old bus station, which sits right in the centre of the city by the night bazaar. A ride costs THB15 and takes 15 minutes. Note that songthaews between the bus terminals ride till 5pm only; in the evening hours you need to negotiate a tuk-tuk or a motorbike taxi ride.
Bangkok Busline offers both VIPs (THB700) and more economical Express buses (THB600) from Chiang Rai to Bangkok. A VIP bus leaves at 6pm and their Express bus goes south half an hour later at 6.30pm, arriving to the destination early the next morning (7am–7.30am). All the buses are air-conditioned, serve snacks and water on board and offer some kind of the entertainment program in the form of movies shown on TV on board. On their way to Bangkok buses make one or more stops at large gas stations complete with toilets, convenience stores and more. It can get freezing cold in long hail buses in Thailand, so have some warm clothes at hand.
Both VIP and Express buses drop passengers off at Morchit Bus Terminal in Bangkok or at the office of Sombat Tour in Soi 13 Vibhavadi Rangsit, about 1200m from Morchit further northeast from the northern side of Chatuchak park.
Tip Though there is a BTS station of the same name (Morchit), it is not located immediately by or inside the bus terminal. You can take a taxi or a motorbike taxi not to walk 1.5km with your luggage, though.
Note Morchit BTS is connected to the second Bangkok Airport, Don Mueang. There A1 and A2 lines of the airport shuttle bus which pick up passengers at Morchit BTS station. The ride costs THB30 and lasts about an hour. There are also free of charge bus shuttles between Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi airports (one hour) provided you could show the air ticket from Suvarnabhumi.
From Chiang Rai to Bangkok by train
There is no railway station in Chiang Rai, with the closest one located in Chiang Mai. The only reasonable excuse for taking a train from Chiang Mai is if you are absotively-posilutely against long night bus trips. If this is your case, than there are a lot of buses and vans from Chiang Rai to Chiang Mai any time of the day from both the old and new bus stations. Travel time is from three to four hours. The most convenient train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok to take is train #2 at 6pm (arrives at 6.50am) or train #14 at 5pm (arrives at 6.15am). Both have second and first class sleeping cars.
From Chiang Rai to Bangkok by plane
A quick return trip from Chiang Rai to Bangkok is best done by plane. Air tickets of budget carriers cost a little more than bus tickets but a one-and-a-half-hour flight is anyway a good investment which saves you a lot of time and energy.
Chiang Rai Airport serves almost exclusively flights between Chiang Rai and Bangkok. One of the carriers offering very reasonably prices tickets to Bangkok is Thai Lion Air, an associate of the largest privately run airline in Indonesia. With a very balanced schedule – there are flights at 7am, 10.20am, 2.50pm and 7.20pm – and tickets priced between THB1000 and THB2000, including 15 kg of checked-in luggage and 7 kg of cabin luggage, pricewise they make a decent alternative to the overland travel.
Note that the last flight arrives to Bangkok at 8.45pm. Add at least one hour to get from Don Mueang Airport to the centre of the city: expect to be there not before 11pm.
To get to Chiang Rai International Airport take a taxi or a tuk-tuk from the city. A ride should cost you anywhere from THB100 to THB150. Some hotels offer airport transfer at a flat rate of THB200, too. The airport is about 8km to the northeast of the city, and it takes 20 minutes to get there from Chiang Rai.
In Bangkok Lion Air is based in Don Mueang International Airport to the north of the capital. It is connected to the city by airport shuttle buses (routes A1 and A2). A1 terminates at Morchit bus terminal calling en route to Morchit BTS. A2 heads to Morchit BTS first and then proceeds to Saphan Kwai BTS, Ari BTS, Sanam Pao BTS and finally reaches the Victory Monument (THB30). Travel time depends on traffic and is from 60 to 80 minutes. There are commuter trains between Don Mueang airport and Hua Lamphong train station, 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 3.10am till 10.15pm.