Getting to Chiang Mai is easy, you just need to choose an option that best suits your time and budget.
Chiang Mai, in mountainous Northern Thailand, is about 470 miles from Bangkok. Although it feels worlds apart from the country’s fast-moving, cosmopolitan capital, Thailand's fourth largest city is very easy to reach whether you go by plane, bus, train, or drive there on your own.
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Fly to Chiang Mai
The most popular and convenient way to get to Chiang Mai from Bangkok is to fly there (airport code: CNX).
There are multiple daily flights to Chiang Mai from Bangkok on Thai Airways, Air Asia, and Nok Air.
The flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai takes around 1.5 hours, and depending on the time of year and how far in advance you book, can cost less than $50 each way. Thai Airways often offers very competitive rates to destinations served by budget airlines, so make sure to check with them before booking on another carrier.
The best part of flying to Chiang Mai is that Chiang Mai International Airport is just 10 minutes away from the center of the Old City. Also, the airport is very small and easy to navigate, so it’s very possible to be sightseeing within an hour of landing.
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Buses to Chiang Mai
The cheapest way to get to Chiang Mai is by either government-run bus or private bus (often called a "tourist bus," “VIP bus,” or "luxury bus").
Buses to Chiang Mai take about 10 or 11 hours and cost around 250 baht for a fan-cooled, government bus. If you take one of these, it will make frequent stops and you are not guaranteed a seat.
First-class government buses are slightly more expensive, go non-stop to Chiang Mai from Bangkok, and are very comfortable. They have reclining seats, and often a movie and snack are provided.
Government buses depart from Bangkok’s Northern Bus Terminal (at Mo Chit) at least a dozen times per day.
VIP and luxury buses depart from various parts of the city, including the Khao San Road area, at least a few times per day.
Buses arrive at Chiang Mai’s Arcade Bus Station, which is a few miles from the Old City. If you are planning on taking the bus, consider that bus accidents are far more frequent in Thailand than plane or train accidents. Every year there are dozens of incidents where buses have run off the road in the mountains and many of the accidents result in severe injury and deaths.
Note: If you opt for a night bus from the Khao San Road area, be aware that petty theft on these buses has been a problem for decades.
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Trains to Chiang Mai
If you’re a train buff or just want to relax and take in the scenery while getting to Chiang Mai, consider taking a train.
There are around six trains each day that make the trip from Bangkok’s Hualumpong Station, and you’ll have your choice of everything from inexpensive third class seats to private sleepers on overnight trains.
The trains are very slow considering the distance — the slowest takes about 15 hours to make the 470-mile journey. But if you’re traveling during the day, you’ll get to enjoy some nice scenery. If you’re traveling by night, you’ll at least get to enjoy people watching and maybe even a beverage in the dining car.
When buying a train ticket, you'll need to choose which class:
- Third-class seats are hard, wooden benches in fan-cooled carriages and might make for tough going for all but the most intrepid and least sensitive travelers.
- Second-class seats offer more cushioning. If you are taking an overnight train and get a second-class sleeper, the seats open into flat beds with linens provided by train personnel. You'll have to choose between taking a top or bottom bunk. Top bunks are cheaper, however, they don't offer enough room for tall travelers to stretch out completely.
- First-class sleepers are private carriages shared by two people. If you want to arrange a sleeper, make your plans and get tickets well in advance. These seats sell out weeks — and sometimes even months — in advance. Though the trains are generally reliable, they do break down more frequently than they should, which can add hours to an already long journey.
Note: Unless you're traveling as a couple and want the privacy, a second-class sleeper suffices for many travelers. If you're traveling solo and opt for a first-class sleeper, you'll have to share the relatively intimate carriage with a stranger.
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Driving to Chiang Mai
If you’re comfortable driving in Thailand, consider making the trip with your own wheels and renting a car.
Much of the first part of the drive from Bangkok is on flat, fast, very well-maintained highways. As you get into the northern part of the country, the terrain becomes more mountainous, but the roads remain very easy to drive. Though it’s a long trip to do in one day, if you stop in Lopburi or Sukhothai for a night, you’ll get a chance to see an interesting part of Thailand that many tourists miss.
If you do make the drive, try to schedule things so that you’re not driving in the mountains after dark. Even well-traveled routes sometimes lack sufficient lighting and there are frequent accidents.
Note: You'll be driving on the left in Thailand, along with interpreting new kinds of road signs and dealing with heavy traffic. Thailand consistently has one of the highest road fatality rates in the world. Only attempt the drive if you're comfortable with the pace of driving in Southeast Asia!
Updated by Greg Rodgers