In a nutshell, you have three options for getting from Bangkok to Chiang Mai: bus, train, or flight.
Choosing the best mode of transport depends on your time-to-budget ratio and your tolerance for discomfort. There are roughly 400 miles to cover between Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
Flights from Bangkok to Chiang Mai only take a little over an hour. They effectively cut 12+ hours of transportation down to around 2.5 hours, assuming you arrive an hour before your flight. Plus, they're just slightly more expensive than going overland.
But streaking across the sky at 500 miles per hour is a guaranteed way to see nothing of the country along the way.
Going overland requires either a full day or an overnight by either bus or train. At the expense of good sleep, buses are the most economical option — assuming you don't get robbed by the attendant as many backpackers do.
There is another option: If your itinerary allows a slowdown, train travel always provides a more memorable experience and reduces your environmental footprint.
Hands down, flying is the fastest way to Chiang Mai. Perhaps the most comfortable, too. Even if your seat places you in a nightmarish scenario, you'll only have to endure it for 90 minutes. Taking the bus pretty well guarantees 12 hours of a horn-blasting nightmare.
With lots of competition, airfare for flights from Bangkok to Chiang Mai (airport code: CNX) is very affordable. The budget carriers offer a limited number of "promo" fares. These types of tickets usually don't include luggage fees or any perks beyond a seatbelt.
Although tickets will probably still be available the day before the flight, booking at least a week or two ahead might score a better deal if you plan to check bags.
The flight to Chiang Mai takes less than 90 minutes. Bangkok Airways and Thai Airways operate from the newer Suvarnabhumi Airport (airport code: BKK) in Bangkok. Budget carriers such as Nok Air and Thai AirAsia operate domestic flights from the older Don Mueang Airport (airport code: DMK).
The two airports in Bangkok are around 40 minutes apart — make sure you go to the right one!
Chiang Mai International Airport is only four miles southwest of Tapae Gate, the entrance to the Old City and what is arguably the epicenter of the tourist area. Transportation from the airport in Chiang Mai to the Old City moat will take less than half an hour, depending on city traffic.
If flying is the most efficient way of getting to Chiang Mai, the bus is the least. Although buses may cover the distance slightly faster and with fewer stops than the train, getting comfortable enough on the ride to sleep isn't included in the cheap ticket price.
The cheapest buses depart from Khao San Road, the infamous Bangkok heart of the backpacker Banana Pancake Trail. Most travelers opt for the overnight bus to save a night of accommodation and a day of trip time.
The buses from Bangkok to Chiang Mai can be booked through your accommodation desk or from one of the many travel agents scattered along Khao San Road and Soi Rambuttri. Pricing is not always fixed; ask in several places to find the best deal.
You should book your ticket at least a day before you plan to leave. The bus company will send a representative on foot to collect you at your guesthouse. Be ready a few minutes early; they often turn up 15 minutes early or late. Be prepared to walk the length of Khao San Road — probably at a quickstep — as other passengers are collected. You'll gather as a group then board the bus right on the main road; no trip to a station necessary.
The tourist buses between Bangkok and Chiang Mai will often stop at a predetermined hotel because they receive a commission when passengers decide to stay there. Arriving early in the morning in the middle of the bewildering maze of Chiang Mai's Old City entices a lot of passengers to just grab the first available hotel. It isn't the best deal! You are not committed to staying there and can often find a better deal if you walk away to find your own accommodation.
Warning: Theft on the cheapest overnight buses from Khao San Road to Chiang Mai has been a serious problem for more than a decade. The driver's assistant climbs into the luggage hold while the bus is still moving. He then discreetly removes select items from each bag. Keep all valuables with you on the bus! Don't think that only money or electronics are targets: they've been known to steal razors, chargers, flashlights, and pricey sunscreen, too.
Aside from the tourist-oriented buses departing from Khao San Road, deluxe buses from Bangkok to Chiang Mai leave from the northeast bus terminal (Mo Chit). You can get to the bus terminal by taking the BTS Skytrain.
These buses are used more often by locals rather than tourists. You'll often receive better treatment, a snack, and water. The movie shown will most likely be in Thai without English subtitles, but the driving tends to be more civil and the rest is easier.
Although travel agencies will sell tickets for deluxe buses, some dishonest agents have been known to sell deluxe tickets then put passengers on the regular old tourist bus. To be sure, take the BTS Skytrain to the Mo Chit stop then walk or taxi the rest of the distance to the bus terminal to book passage yourself.
If you purchase the ticket through an agent, the bus should leave from a station, otherwise, you've been duped.
Nearly every bus, including the cheapest tourist buses, claims to be "VIP," however, this isn't the case. Don't ever pay more for a "VIP" bus or upgrade.
Deluxe buses arrive at the Arcade Bus Station in Chiang Mai; transportation will be waiting to take you to your hotel.
Overnight trains to Chiang Mai take slightly longer than overnight buses, however, they're scenic, interesting, and enjoyable. As travel writer Paul Theroux famously noted, train travel provides a unique peek behind the cultural curtain.
Second class sleeper trains provide a small bunk with privacy curtain. The smooth ride and rhythmic clack clack are much more conducive for sleep than the bus. Trains are certainly the best option for enjoying the scenery of the Thai countryside.
Trains arrive at the Chiang Mai Railway Station on Charoen Mueang, just east of the Old City. Numerous drivers will be waiting outside to take you from the station to your hotel.
Although trains can be booked through travel agencies, many agents may try to talk you into the overnight tourist bus instead so that someone from the company doesn't have to go purchase your ticket at the station. Optionally, you could take a tuk-tuk or quick motorbike taxi to buy the ticket commission free at the station yourself.
Try to book your train ticket a few days in advance for the most choice. If you wait until the day before, you may not get the car class you prefer.
Attendants sell food and drinks at an inflated price but you'll be far happier if you take plenty of snacks and water with you.
Transportation to Chiang Mai, particularly buses and trains, fills up quickly when big festivals are in progress. Popular holidays in Thailand such as Loi Krathong and Songkran will literally book up most transportation options to Chiang Mai a week or more in advance.
As the full moon nears each month, transportation south to Bangkok and onward to the island of Koh Phangan may get much busier. Thousands of travelers head to the monthly Full Moon Party at Haad Rin in Koh Phangan.
When you're ready to leave Chiang Mai, the transportation options for getting from Chiang Mai to Bangkok are pretty well the same!