The ultimate guide to getting to Chiang Mai

After the frenetic buzz of traveler enclave, Bangkok, or too much temple-hopping in the stunning kingdom of Sukhothai, many visitors will go in search of a more laid back experience, almost throwing themselves into the thralls of Chiang Mai, a haven for foodies, culture vultures and adventure seekers alike.

But how do you even get to the city dubbed the “Rose of the North”? Here’s a rundown of the most popular routes and the best transport options for them, in this guide to the best ways to get to Chiang Mai, Thailand. 

Some background on Chiang Mai  

Firstly, it’s worth talking about Chiang Mai’s location. The fourth largest city in Thailand, Chiang Mai is perfectly positioned in the north of the country, the heart of the upper reaches of this beautiful nation. 

Actually nestled in the hills of the Himalayas, until around 1920 the only way to reach the town was on the back of an elephant, or on a slightly hairy journey on the river. Luckily, nowadays, you’ll find it far easier to reach this cosmopolitan city! In fact, on most routes you’ll have the options of a speedy flight, a bus, a train, a minivan or even a private car. 

Popular routes to Chiang Mai

While most intrepid travelers wanting to see Chiang Mai will visit it from Bangkok or even from the nearby hipster hub of Pai, you don’t have to just see the city as another stop on your Thailand itinerary. 

Instead, you could get to Chiang Mai from Luang Prabang, Laos’ glittering gem where you could jump on a bus or even take a bus and ferry combination, the infamous “slow boat” between the two points. 

Similarly, you could hop on a flight or hitch a minivan from Yangon to Chiang Mai, swapping the street art and slightly dingy markets of Myanmar’s most celebrated city for the upmarket stalls and high-end hawkers of Chiang Mai instead. 

If you are just doing a Thailand tour, though, of course the most popular routes are:

RouteTransport optionsDepartures per day
Bangkok to Chiang MaiBus, minivan, train, flightApproximately 83 per day
Pai to Chiang MaiMinivan, private rideApproximately 17 per day
Sukhothai to Chiang MaiBus, minivan, private rideApproximately 25 per day
Chiang Rai to Chiang MaiBus, minivan, private rideApproximately 8 per day

Taking a flight to Chiang Mai

In many cases, catching a flight to Chiang Mai is going to be the quickest (albeit usually most expensive) bet. Chiang Mai International Airport (CMX) is a bustling airport which see flights coming in from Singapore, Taiwan, Laos, Myanmar and further afield.  

Transiting within Thailand is also a breeze if you are coming in to Chiang Mai airport, with planes landing from seaside paradise Krabi, from Suratthani, Phuket and even Hat Yai. 

Of course the most well-trodden (or flown in this case) route is usually Bangkok to Chiang Mai, where you can pick from a bevy of brilliant operators, including Thai Lion Air, Air Asia, Vietjet and Thai Smile to name just a few. 

Taking a train to Chiang Mai

Great for eco-warriors who prefer the low carbon footprint of trains to the more gas-guzzling minivans, rail travel is a wonderful option for getting to Chiang Mai. 

While they might not be as luxurious as you might envision, train travel in Thailand is generally quick, clean and oh-so-convenient, and getting to Chiang Mai is no different.

Like air travel, the most popular route is definitely Bangkok to Chiang Mai, where you’ll board at Bangkok’s Hua Lumpong Train Station, before whizzing through the lush Thai countryside before alighting in Chiang Mai. That said, trains are available from many major destinations, like Ayutthaya or even Lopburi if you fancy a change. 

Pro tip: If you’re looking for a wallet-friendly option, you could always opt to take the train at night – you won’t see much outside your carriage window, but you’ll definitely save a few Thai Baht on accommodation!  

Taking a bus to Chiang Mai 

Like trains, bus travel in Thailand is usually comfortable, but doesn’t lean towards extravagant. With a pretty solid road network, you’ll be able to board a bus to Chiang Mai from most key spots; it’s just the travel time that sets places like Pai and Phuket apart. 

In some instances, like the short jaunt between Chiang Mai and neighboring Chiang Rai, it’s just a four hour ride, where you won’t really need sumptuous seats or more than one rest stop to stretch those legs. However, for longer stints like the almost 11 hour journey from Bangkok, you might want to plump for plusher quarters, taking a deluxe bus with reclining seats, snuggly blankets and even a meal thrown in for good measure. 

Either way, regardless of whether you’re on the budget or luxury option, make sure to pack something warm for the ride. Thai buses, like most of those in Southeast Asia, are well known for cranking up the air conditioning to almost arctic conditions! 

Taking a minivan or private ride to Chiang Mai 

None of the above tickles your fancy, and you’re keen for privacy? Then the best way to get to Chiang Mai is possibly with a private ride. Usually available as a minivan which takes up to 9 people or a private car that seats up to 5, of course getting a private car from your origin city to the cool café-sprinkled city of Chiang Mai can be a breeze regardless of where you start the journey. 

While a private ride is one of the most eye wateringly expensive options to get to Chiang Mai, it is undoubtedly one of the most convenient. A private driver who picks you up, right at your hotel or hostel door? Check. The ability to change the radio station, or turn down that signature A/C en route to Chiang Mai? Check. And a rest stop whenever you need a break? Definitely check. 

Minivans and private rides are available on most routes – like Sukhothai, Lampang or Lamphun to name just three. 

Getting around in Chiang Mai

Now, you’ve finally gone and done it. You’ve reached Chiang Mai! You’ve dumped your backpack on your bed, grabbed your camera with glee, and you’re off to explore the many-splendored coffee shops and markets of the city. 

Other than ambling the streets by foot, there are a few ways to get around, depending on your budget and your sense of adventure of course. 

You could hail a traditional taxi, safe in the comfy interior as temples and trinket-stuffed shops glide by. Similarly, you could whip out your phone and hail a Grab, Asia’s answer to Uber, to ferry you around. Or, like many in Thailand, you could barter with a toothy-grinned tuk tuk driver, traveling around corners at breakneck speed as you whizz in and out of the walled city, the sights sailing past. 

The truth is that, however you decide to travel to Chiang Mai, and whatever your mode of transport when you arrive in this superb Thai city, you’ll have made a great choice. Getting to Chiang Mai is undoubtedly part of the fun but what awaits you is even better: Thailand’s urbane, definitely chic yet casual metropole, packed with great things to do and see before you head off on your next travel adventure.

James and Lee of The Travel Scribes

James and Lee of The Travel Scribes

James and Lee of The Travel Scribes are two wandering writers, who love traveling, writing and everything social media. A married couple in their thirties, when they’re not quenching their thirst for wanderlust, they’re most often found behind their laptops, bashing out their latest blog posts.
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