Getting Around Chiang Mai: Guide to Public Transportation

Bicycle entering Old City, Chiang Mai, Thailand
Bicycle entering Old City, Chiang Mai, Thailand.

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The transportation scene in Chiang Mai in Thailand is less transparent than in places like Bangkok or Singapore. Lacking any commuter rail (though one is under construction), the city relies on red songthaew, buses, and tuk-tuk to get most people to where they want to go.

Find out how to get around Chiang Mai without busting your travel budget, by picking one of the transport methods we’ve listed below.

How to Ride the Songthaew in Chiang Mai

Songthaew (Thai for “two rows”) are converted pickup trucks that accommodate eight to 12 passengers in two facing rows of seats.

When you ride a songthaew, you’ll sit at one of the two benches, with no seatbelts to secure you. Rush hour in Chiang Mai can find these songthaew tightly packed with commuters, even hanging on outside the songthaew.

Chiang Mai has no less than six different colors of songthaew roaming the streets, and each of them covers its own beat.

Red Songthaew in Chiang Mai

The red songthaew (or rod daeng, Thai for “red car”) are the most common you’ll see in the city, transporting locals around for as little as 30 baht (around $0.90) per ride. Songthaew (of all colors) can cost anywhere from 30 to 60 baht per ride, depending on the distance, and run from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Routes: Unlike buses, red songthaew don’t follow set routes. Think of them as a combined taxi/bus service: they’ll take you to your destination if they feel it’s on their way, but they’ll also pick up other passengers as they go along. This means that red songthaew won’t take the most direct route to your destination; they’ll deviate from it to drop off your fellow passengers. The final route is whatever the driver thinks is most convenient to get all their passengers to their desired places.

Calling a Red Songthaew: To call a red songthaew, wait on the curb until one approaches; flag it down by stretching out your hand. Tell the driver your destination, and if they agree, you can hop on behind and go. If they don’t, they’ll just shake their head and drive on.

Chances are better if your destination is well within the city and in the same direction he’s heading in—places like Nimman Road and the Old City’s Thapae Gate will get a better shot than others off the beaten path.

Once you reach your destination, disembark and pay the driver.

Red songthaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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Chiang Mai Songthaew’s Other Colors

Songthaew of other colors go beyond Chiang Mai city limits to nearby towns and tourist destinations. Most of these depart from Bus Terminal 1 (Chang Phuak Bus Terminal), though others can be found at Warorot Market and Pratu Chiang Mai at the Old City gate.

  • Yellow Songthaew: Three routes are covered by these songthaew, heading to different districts to the northern parts of Chiang Mai province. One goes to Mae Rim; another to Doi Saket; and the last one to the districts of San Pa Tong and Chom Thong.
  • Green Songthaew: These songthaew depart from Chang Phuak and head to the northeast, to the vicinity of Maejo University; but take one of two routes to get there. One takes the superhighway for the more direct route, and the other (less direct) route passes through San Sai.
  • Blue Songthaew: These head south of Chiang Mai, departing from Chang Phuak and heading towards the neighboring province of Lamphun, passing by Saraphi along the way.
  • White Songthaew: These head east of Chiang Mai city, departing from Chang Phuak and heading to Sankamphaeng and the city’s eastern suburbs.
  • Orange Songthaew: These head to Fang in Chiang Rai province north of Chiang Mai, departing from Chang Phuak and passing through Chiang Dao, Chai Prakan, and the foothills of Doi Ang Kang.

How to Ride a Tuk-Tuk in Chiang Mai

These iconic Thai motorized taxis can be found all over Chiang Mai, clustered around major tourist sites around the Old City and Nimman Road. Unlike songthaew, tuk-tuk don’t need to be shared with other passengers; they’ll take you on a point-to-point trip to exactly where you want to go (within a reasonable distance).

Tuk-tuk cost at least 100 baht for a short ride, with prices steadily rising as you go further. You’ll need to agree on a price before you ride (haggling down the price helps—they’ll generally quote an exorbitantly high price, expecting you to negotiate the rate down).

Thrill-seeking tourists will love the tuktuk, as the drivers tend to drive aggressively to get you to your destination faster. Bring a handkerchief or face mask to ward off the dust and smoke, as tuktuk are open to the elements.

Tuktuk in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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How to ride the Chiang Mai city bus

The Chiang Mai Municipality Bus currently operates three lines that cover the city center and the airport. These buses depart from Bus Terminal 2 (Arcade Bus Station 2). Many stops lie alongside popular tourist stops like Tha Pae Gate, Nimman Road and the Chiang Mai Zoo.

  • Line B1 (Arcade Bus Station 2 to Chiang Mai Zoo) heads west from the bus station, passing Tha Pae Gate down the middle of the Old City and out until it reaches the zoo, where it turns around and heads back on the same route.
  • Line B2 (Arcade Bus Station 2 to Chiang Mai International Airport) connects the city with its nearest airport, and is the cheapest way to get to the airport from the city, or vice versa. This mode of travel isn’t suitable for travelers with heavy luggage, given the small size of the bus.
  • Line B3 (Arcade Bus Station 2 to Chiang Mai Provincial Government Office) heads northwest past the Chiang Mai International Convention and Exhibition Center.

These buses leave Arcade every thirty minutes or so on weekdays (every hour on weekends), operating from 6am to 6pm. Fares are a flat THB 15 ($0.50), payable on the bus.

Rented Vehicles

To explore Chiang Mai on your own, nothing beats renting your own vehicle to get around. Motorbikes, bicycles, and automobiles can be rented at competitive prices, especially if you’re renting on weekly or monthly terms.

Do take note that traffic in Chiang Mai can be chaotic and dangerous for first-time motorists—it may be much safer to take tuk-tuk or songthaew if you’re only staying within the city, or visiting the main tourist routes.

  • Rented Motorbikes: Scooters and motorbikes can be rented, allowing tourists to take to the road like a local. If you can afford to rent the larger, more powerful bikes, you can hit the motorcycle loops that depart from Chiang Mai and go as far as the Myanmar border. Rental rates can vary widely, depending on the age, make, type of engine, even the time of year. Expect rates of 300 baht charged per day and 2,500 baht and onward for a monthly rental.
  • Rental Cars: If the right-hand-side drive and the chaotic city traffic don’t faze you, car rentals can be easily arranged in Chiang Mai. Companies like Budget and Hertz can be rented in Chiang Mai International Airport.
  • Bicycle Rentals: Riding a bicycle is a popular way of exploring the Old City, and bike rentals can be found throughout the area, ready to oblige fitness-minded tourists. Prices for bike rentals in the Old City can range from as low as 40 baht per day, increasing with the quality of the bike and the term of the rental. (Some bikes can be rented for as long as a month.) You’ll also be expected to pay a security deposit up front, above and beyond the rental cost (this may cost you about 2,000 to 5,000 baht).

Tips for Getting Around Chiang Mai

  • Do not use your passport as collateral for your rental; it’s frankly illegal. Legit car and motorbike hires will charge a refundable security deposit instead. If the rental agency asks to hold on to your passport, walk away.
  • Buy insurance for your rental; this is usually provided with your rental package, but try to secure more comprehensive insurance cover from the rental agency or from a third party.
  • Don’t be afraid to haggle the price down for your tuktuk ride as low as you can. The high prices they charge at the beginning aren’t there to scare you away, they’re a measure of how much they can squeeze from you. The trick is not to let them squeeze you; push back until you reach a more reasonable rate.
  • Bring small change; buses and songthaew will not have change for large bills.