A visit to the Northern part of Thailand often starts with the journey to Chiang Mai. The second-largest city of Thailand, Chiang Mai is particularly known for its old city, surrounded by a historical wall dating from the 14th century.
You can easily spend hours strolling around the picturesque streets while taking in its rich culture, visiting temples or trying out the Northern Thai cuisine. Without any doubt, this charming city is one of the top destinations to include in your travel itinerary for Thailand.
Another reason why many travelers make their way up north to Chiang Mai is for its festivals. The world-famous festivals Songkran and Loi Krathong are the celebration of the Thai New Year, which is better known as the “biggest water-fight in the world.” Thousand of people gather on the streets with their water pistols and buckets of water to mark the new start of the year.
The festival is celebrated all over the country, but for the best experience, travelers make their way up North to Chiang Mai. Another festival celebrated extensively in Chiang Mai is Loi Krathong. This lantern festival takes place every year in November during the full moon, which happened to be the exact same time I was going to visit Chiang Mai.
One thing I hadn’t really considered though, was to book my train tickets well in advance. Thousands of travelers from all over the world travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai to witness this event. This means that train, bus and flight tickets can sell out weeks in advance.
Pro tip: Book your tickets in advance when traveling around national holidays
While I often plan my trips well in advance, this time I wanted to stay more flexible with my planning and that is why I waited with booking my transport tickets. Unfortunately, I hadn’t really considered the craziness around the festival and missed the chance to book a sleeper train to Chiang Mai.
The sleeper train (I went with Thai Sriram) would have been the perfect way to travel from Bangkok to Chiang Mai as it allows you to sleep throughout the longest part of the journey. Another important reason I prefer to travel overland is that overland trips produce fewer emissions than flying.
Moreover, flight tickets rose over $150 due to the lantern festival and I’d rather save my money and spend it on good food or activities instead. Luckily I was still on time to book a bus ride for just $25, saving both my wallet and the environment (win-win).
Making my way to the ticket office
Because of the Lantern festival, I was advised to arrive at least 2 hours before departure instead of the normal 1 hour. I found it hard to believe, but as an obedient person, I followed the instructions from Bookaway and arrived 2 hours in advance at the bus station.
And oh god, I was happy I did!
There was already a huge queue until the end of the street and it took the full 2 hours to get my ticket. Luckily I met several nice travelers in the queue, so time passed by quickly and it didn’t feel like 2 full hours.
Booking online saved me 500 Baht (15 Euro)
While chatting in the queue with other fellow travelers, I noticed that two people bought their bus tickets at the railway station in Bangkok. They actually paid 1200 Baht, while my ticket, which I booked with Bookaway, only cost 700 Baht. Almost double the price, but exactly the same type of bus and bus company.
This proofed to me that online platforms like Bookaway are often far cheaper because they charge less commission than many offline agencies. Regardless if it is at an official railway station or not.
Boarding the bus for a 9-hour journey to Chiang Mai
Once I received my ticket, I was instructed to get on the bus at the opposite of the street. It only took about 10 minutes before the bus was full and started to make its way to Chiang Mai. From the window, I could see the line of travelers still waiting to get their ticket, which had to take at least another 2-hours considering the length of the queue.
Onboard we were provided with a little snack, a small bottle of water and a clean blanket. The inclining seats were comfortable enough to relax, but unfortunately, they didn’t come close to the sleeper buses that operate in Vietnam. If those sleeper buses from Vietnam would operate in every country, taking the bus would be the best option for almost every route!
During the ride, the bus made one 20-minute stop around midnight, where we had the opportunity to buy some (warm and cold) food from one of the food stalls, in the local cantina or in the small supermarket.
Because I didn’t feel like eating warm food at midnight, I got myself a waffle from one of the local food stands which turned out to be such a tasty snack that I went back for a second one. (you’ll find it outside on the right side of the entrance of the supermarket). It wasn’t as filling as a full dinner, but at least it filled my empty stomach enough to make it through the rest of the journey.
As I didn’t sleep during the first part of the journey, I hoped to quickly fall asleep during the second part so I would get at least 6 hours of rest. However, the reclining seat was not the most comfortable way to sleep and my jetlag also didn’t really help. At the end, I only got about 2-3 hours of sleep before the bus arrived at 5:45 am in Chiang Mai.
A warm welcome to the charming city of Chiang Mai
When we entered Chiang Mai, the streets were beautifully decorated and shining bright with lights. It felt like such a warm welcome to this Northern city of Thailand! The bus finally arrived at Sunny Hostel, on the east side of the old city.
From there everyone was guided to a red Songthaew that would bring you to the accommodation at no charge. Travelers who stayed further away needed to search for another option, but thanks to the taxi app Grab, it is very easy to order a taxi (bike) in Chiang Mai.
Once the Songthaew dropped me off at my accommodation, I asked at the reception if it was possible to check-in early or get a room for that same night/morning. Unfortunately, this was not possible as all rooms were occupied, but instead, I could at least relax in the comfortable beds next to the pool.
Before I knew it, I passed out and woke up 3 hours later from the hot sun glowing in a clear blue sky. Ready to start the day with a refreshing dive in the pool and a fresh smoothie bowl from the popular “Khunkae’s Juice Bar” in the old city of Chiang Mai.