Chiang Mai is the largest city in Northern Thailand and the heart of Lanna Culture. As such there are numerous transport options available for getting to and from Chiang Mai.
Getting to Thailand
It’s hard to imagine a time when it was a challenge to get to Thailand. Flights into Bangkok are available on many different airlines. The Asian airlines tend to be cheaper than European or American ones and in our opinion the service is much better. Thai Airways tends to have the most direct flights into Bangkok, making the travel time as short as possible. Korean Air, Mandarin Air, and Air Asia all have international connections directly to Chiang Mai.
There are also a number of new budget airlines for both international and domestic travel. Flight schedules and routes are changing constantly, so we recommend searching on the internet for the best deals and connections.
Getting to Chiang Mai
Whether you’re coming from the South, East, or center of Thailand, there are a number of domestic travel options available. Planes and buses are quick and convenient, while trains are slower and offer the opportunity to see other parts of Thailand.
Thai Airways (www.thaiair.com) has flights from Bangkok to Chiang Mai almost every hour throughout the day. Thai is generally more expensive than the budget airlines, but the 20kg baggage allowance something can even out the ticket price as other airlines charge for baggage. Consider Thai Airways when booking on short notice as the prices are often cheaper than budget airlines.
Air Asia is a Malaysian based budget airline which offers inexpensive domestic (Bangkok – Don Mueang, Phuket, Hat Yai) and international (Macau, Kuala Lumpur) flights to Chiang Mai. Check out their website for more information. Fares are often extremely cheap when booking well in advance and tend to increase as the departure date nears.
Bangkok Airways (www.bangkokair.com) is known as Asia’s Boutique Airline. Amenities include a travel lounge for all passengers, welcome drinks and a baggage allowance.
Nok Air (www.nokair.com) is a budget airline with frequent trips to Bangkok – Don Mueang.
NOTE: Bangkok has two airports – Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang. Make sure you know which one you’re using!
Travel by train is a fun and mellow way to get around the country. The train is much slower than the bus (it can sometimes take 15 hours from Bangkok) and is often late, but you will definitely come away feeling more rested in the morning if you take the sleeper train. You can hang out and have a few drinks in the restaurant car if you are bored.
The lower (larger) bunk is recommended especially for taller people. There are a number of trains that leave daily from Bangkok’s Hualamphong station, Chiang Mai Station, and Surat Thani in the south. Tickets can be purchased online HERE.
The future looks bright as rumors of a high speed train between Bangkok and Chiang Mai are in the works.
UPDATE: This year has seen several derailments between Bangkok and Chiang Mai and many are now skeptical of the rail infrastructure. Travel at your own risk.
Bus travel is still the most common method of travel for the majority of Thai people.
The Thai bus system is outstanding with buses leaving on time and also offering nice perks including fully reclining massage chairs, movies, and a bus hostess serving food and snacks. On average bus service talks about 9 hours between Chiang Mai and Bangkok with departures every hour by many different companies.
In Chiang Mai, head to the Arcade Bus Station to book tickets. Many of the companies are upgrading their booking systems to include online bookings.
Don’t Get Fooled! Many tourists often choose to purchase extremely inexpensive bus tickets from their guesthouses or travel agencies. We do not support these buses in any way. The buses are often not allowed to travel on major highways resulting in travel times up to 40% longer. They also often stop at a restaurant halfway to the destination that is owned and operated by the company with exorbitantly priced food. All of the money spent goes straight to the bus company.
The reason that your bus ticket is so inexpensive is due to the fact that a guesthouse or operator at your destination has paid for the remainder of your set. When you arrive, you will certainly be taken to a guesthouse that you did not choose and 5 AM, you may not have the willpower or even a choice to look for another option. This ensures that you stay and potentially purchase tours at a later date.
The government certified buses mentioned above run on time and stop at major bus stations where local vendors are able to sell excellent Thai food at an affordable price. While the bus ticket is more expensive than the tourist bus, you will be supporting a larger community and spend less time on board.
Citizens of almost every country are automatically granted a 30 day tourist visa upon entry into Thailand via airplane or 15 days upon entry by land. Check the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs website to see if you qualify (www.mfa.go.th). Some countries like Brazil get 90 days on arrival. Check to see the requirements for your nationality.
If your visa is expiring, you can do a border run to any Thai border that has an immigration office, leave for a few hours and return with a fresh 15 day tourist visa stamp on your passport. Mae Sai along the Burmese border is only 3 hours north of Chiang Mai and Hat Yai along the Malaysian border is only a couple of hours south of Krabi.
If you choose to do a border run to either of these cities, it will take a full day. If you overstay your visa you will be charged 500 baht per day. If you have overstayed one day they will not charge you but you will be charged THB 1000 on the second day.
Alternatively, you can purchase a 7 day extension at any immigration office in Thailand. These are approximately THB 1900 but check with immigration for current rates as they change often. After the extension, you will be required to leave and return with a new stamp as mentioned above. To avoid all these hassles, be sure to read our recommended visa info below.
Recommended: Extended Tourist Visa
Longer 60 day tourist visas (recommended) can be purchased from embassies in your home country or neighboring countries before you arrive and can be a good way to avoid the hassle of border runs if you plan on sticking around for a while. These visas can be extended for 30 days.
If you leave the country before the visa expires, you will lose the remaining days. If you can produce a round trip ticket when you apply for your visa, you can purchase up to 3 separate 60 day visas each of which can be extended by 30 days. At the end of the extension, you must exit the country and return by air to use the next visa. This can help you gain up to 9 months stay in Thailand with two excursions to neighboring countries.
Check with your local embassy before you apply as some embassies require a round trip ticket to obtain three entries.