Going to Bangkok by flight is the obvious choice if time is a priority; cheap deals on budget airlines can be found. But as travel writer Paul Theroux made very clear, traveling by train is a special experience. By flying you'll miss out on seeing some "real" life in Thailand that can only be enjoyed by bouncing along on an overland journey.
Booking Tickets to Bangkok
Like the rest of tourist stops in Thailand, there is a travel office every few steps in Chiang Mai. Plus, hotels and guesthouses will gladly book tickets for you. Commissions added rarely boost ticket prices more than US $1-2.
Prices are not fixed throughout Chiang Mai. Ask in a couple of places for an idea of what a fair price should be. As many budget travelers know through experience, big hotels and travel agencies with offices in prominent locations (e.g., near Tapae Gate) pay more rent and therefore charge more than mom-and-pop businesses on backroads.
Travel agencies offer minivan and tourist bus service from Chiang Mai to all over Thailand — even as far as Luang Prabang, Laos, if you're willing to punish yourself like that. Bus service usually includes hotel pickup in the price, however, you'll have to get yourself to the station to travel by train.
Ticket reservations in Thailand are not recorded electronically. If you lose your physical ticket, don't expect a reprint or refund!
Tip: Nearly every bus in Thailand claims to be "VIP" — don't pay extra for upgrades to VIP, you'll most likely end up on the same bus as everyone else. In a worst-case scenario, you could end up with 12 hours of drunken bus karaoke along the way.
Traveling During Busy Times
When making a booking, travel agents will call the bus company or train station to verify availability. Trains, especially the more desirable classes, often sell out a day or two in advance during Thailand's busy season.
Book well in advance during and immediately after big festivals in Thailand. Events such as Songkran and Loi Krathong cause Chiang Mai to swell with travelers. You'll even need to take the phase of the moon into account — yes, seriously — if traveling to Surat Thani and islands in the Gulf of Thailand.
Flights from Chiang Mai to Bangkok
If saving time seems to be a better choice than bouncing along slowly overland, flying is the favorable option for getting from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. Direct flights only require about an hour in the air, as opposed to spending the night on a bus or train.
A multitude of daily flights between Chiang Mai and Bangkok keep fares lower than expected, often even up until the day before. Check with local carrier Nok Air for great service, or navigate an online gauntlet of add-on fees to book with AirAsia. Flights purchased in advance can be as low as US $30!
Chiang Mai International Airport (airport code: CNX) is open from 5 am until midnight with many daily flights back to Bangkok. Chiang Mai International Airport is located only four miles southwest of Tapae Gate in Chiang Mai. Getting to the airport takes around 25 minutes depending on traffic.
Most flights from Chiang Mai to Bangkok arrive in the "old" Don Mueang Airport (DMK) rather than the newer, larger Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) — plan accordingly.
Tip: Credit card canceled while traveling? No problem. You can pay for flights with cash in 7-Elevens throughout Thailand.
Trains From Chiang Mai to Bangkok
Night trains are a relatively comfortable, if not more interesting, alternative to flying. Sights and scenery along the way offer a peek behind the tourism curtain. The dining car sells food, drinks, snacks, and if you're lucky, fuels a social atmosphere.
First-class tickets mean sharing a two-person berth and sink with a complete stranger if you're traveling alone. Many budget travelers opt for the second-class sleeper trains which consist of rows of bunks with privacy curtains. The top bunks are a little cheaper than the lower, however, they're a bit like sleeping in the overhead compartment on a plane. Tall people won't be able to stretch out.
Although the rhythmic click-clack of a train rocking through rural rice paddies seems like a recipe for good sleep, second class isn't without its challenges. Frequent stops and car changes make a lot of noise. Attendants who earn commission will do their best to sell you a warm beer and overpriced food. Some cars have super-powered air conditioning — be prepared with warm clothing.
The Chiang Mai Railway Station is located east of the city on Charoen Mueang Road — the extension of Tha Pae Road just across the river. You can make your own way by cheap tuk-tuk to the station to purchase tickets or pay a small commission through a travel agent who will dispatch someone to collect the tickets for you.
Tip: Trains fill up quickly; you should try to book several days ahead whenever possible or you may not get your first pick of class.
Tourist Buses to Bangkok
Most backpackers end up on the cheapest buses, collectively referred to as "tourist buses." These double-decker buses will get you to Bangkok for cheap, although comfort and leg space are usually not top priorities.
You'll find bus tickets priced from 350 baht to 500 baht depending on the agency; the buses are practically the same — so shop around before booking! Tourist buses typically depart around 6:30 pm and arrive in Bangkok at 7 am. Drivers tend to only stop once or twice throughout the night. For the rest of the time, you'll have to make do with a tiny onboard toilet, often a thing of nightmares.
The price of a bus ticket usually includes pickup at your accommodation. Unless stated otherwise, the bus terminates at Khao San Road in Bangkok.
Important Tip: Theft on night buses has been an ongoing scam in Thailand for a decade, including the buses from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. A bus assistant climbs into the luggage hold while passengers are sleeping and sifts through stowed bags for items such as knives, flashlights, phone chargers, and even sunscreen ( it's pricey in Thailand)! Never leave money or electronics in your stowed bag; you won't discover a small item missing until days later when the bus is long gone.
Deluxe and VIP Buses to Bangkok
Although almost every motorized box with four tires in Thailand claims to be "VIP," government "deluxe" buses offer a slightly better alternative to the backpacker "tourist" buses.
Most deluxe buses depart from the Arcade Bus Station (or newer station next to it) in Chiang Mai. These buses typically have fewer tourists on them because travel agents are more reluctant to sell these tickets and push tourist buses more.
Unfortunately, there is the potential for a travel agent to sell you a "deluxe" ticket but put you on the cheaper tourist bus instead. One way to know the difference is that you're usually responsible for getting to the Arcade Bus Station for taking deluxe buses. Tourist buses include pickup.
Deluxe buses include a meal or snack in a box, small drink, and often a movie — but it may be available only in Thai without subtitles. All buses have reclining seats with a fair amount of leg space.
Deluxe buses from Chiang Mai to Bangkok can be booked for around 750 baht and up. Although you'll find buses departing to Bangkok all the time from Arcade Bus Station, the most common times for the night buses are 7 pm (arriving at 6 am) and 9 pm (arriving at 8 am).
Tip: If given the option at booking to choose your seat, the front seats on the top deck of the bus have more leg and bag space than any other seat on the bus. Keep in mind that if you choose a seat in front of one of the overhead screens, you won't be able to escape the movie no matter how loud or terrible.