Bangkok has really good public transportation, but unfortunately Chiang Mai is a bit lacking in this. Around the central area, it is a great “walking” city, and you can make some terrific discoveries going down little side streets. But there is a limit to how much or how far you can go with walking and you have to consider what is available here.
Here are the options available to you when you visit our fair city in Northern Thailand:
Unlike Bangkok, when you fly into the airport, you won’t see a taxi line. Actually, you will be quite lucky if you even see a taxi at all. If you arrive late at night, it will be almost impossible to see any. There is a “taxi counter” in the Chiang Mai airport right next to the door out from baggage claim, but they are likely to set you up with a Songthauw (kind of a cross between a pick up truck and a little bus) or a Tuk Tuk.
We simply don’t have all those brightly colored metered taxes everywhere that you find in Bangkok. The taxis that are available are usually yellow SUV cars. They have a meter, but they usually don’t turn them on. You tell them where you want to go and they will tell you a price. If they are the only taxi around, the driver knows you are likely to take it.
When you are flying into Chiang Mai, check with the hotel you are staying to see if they can provide transportation. Most do this, and the driver waits for you right outside of baggage with a sign with your name. Often it is free, sometimes it has a small charge. It won’t take more than 15-20 minutes max (and usually much less) to get you almost anywhere in the central part of town.
When staying in Chiang Mai, you cannot depend on flagging a taxi down off the street. There simply are none around, so you will have to think about alternatives.
About Car Rentals
Some first time travelers to Chiang Mai think about getting their own rental car to travel around independently. My recommendation for most people visiting Chiang Mai, is don’t do this.
First, car rentals are expensive. By doing a quick check online, you will see that a car rental for an economy car (the smallest car) will run somewhere between 1000฿ (USD $33) and 1500฿ (USD $50) per day based on a couple of weeks use. Second, the streets of Chiang Mai are very confusing for someone that cannot read Thai and is unfamiliar with the area. If you drive your own car, it is almost guaranteed you will get lost several times (even expats that have lived here a long time get lost all the time). And thirdly, driving in Northern Thailand, especially near the center of Chiang Mai is extremely difficult because rules of the road are ignored by most drivers and there is a curious method to the madness that it seems only a Thai can translate. For an American used to orderly traffic flows, people stopping at stop signs, drivers using only one lane and obeying most other road rules, driving in the area can be downright terrifying, because rules of the road don’t apply here. Even the big metropolises of Europe that are famous for traffic problems are easier than driving in Chiang Mai.
Understand also that if you are in an accident, it is often the one that is best capable of paying for the damage that is made responsible (that’s the Thai way), and if a foreigner is involved, they are usually picked by the police on the spot to take care of it. A passport is often confiscated until the situation is resolved.
Down in Bangkok, there are millions of cheap, comfortable taxis all over the city. You just have to stick your hand out, and in a couple seconds someone is there to transport you comfortably anywhere you want to go..Maybe someday Chiang Mai will be opened up to this public transportation system.
Tuk-Tuks and Songthaews
There are plenty of tuk-tuks (pronounced “took-took”) in Chiang Mai, but they have no meter and want to come up with a charge for each trip on their evaluation of how much the passenger is likely able to pay. Be sure to settle on the charge with them before jumping on board. Sometimes you can find a good driver to hire for the whole day for a set amount, and this can be a lot of fun seeing everything in central Chiang Mai.
And what serves as the closest thing to a taxi in Chiang Mai are the Songthaew. These are small pickup trucks that wander around the city that have a covered passenger area in the back of the truck. They tend to only drive on the main roads, are a bit inflexible about going to a destination on a small soi (off street), and they seldom speak any English. Sometimes when you hop on board they won’t take you to where you want to go until they are able to get a few more passengers. They are cheap though, with short trips being just 20฿.
Different color Songthaews designate where they travel. The Red ones cover the central part of Chiang Mai. You will see other colors downtown, but they are designed to take passengers from there to particular outskirt areas.
You have to know where you are going before stopping a Songtheaw and tell the driver through the window. Expect to get flagged off a few times before a driver will say yes. This is not to offend or not want business; it is just drivers may be headed to somewhere else. There are so many Songtheaws on the road, however, that you can find another one to ask within a minute.
Once riding in the back and you see where you want to get off, you indicate to the driver or pull the buzzer string to have him stop. He’ll stop right there, and that is when you pay him.
The Songtheaw “system” takes a couple of tries to get used to it, but it’ll become easier after that.
Buses? Forget about it. OK for the locals, but not good for a non-Thai speaking visitor.
Another option is renting an automatic motor scooter, which is the main transportation for in Chiang Mai, both in and outside of the city. They are pretty cheap at 150-200฿ (USD $5-$6.50) per day, but you have to be comfortable with handling the crazy traffic on two wheels. These scooters are not difficult to drive. For a lot of people, this is a great option, maybe the best option..
There are many motorbike rental places all over the downtown areas, and also probably through your hotel. Most will demand you leave them your passport, but if you give them a photocopy of the first page, that will usually suffice, so it is good to get that copy made before talking with the rental places.
Motorbikes are usually 100cc or 125cc, and most are fully automatic. Top speed will be about 45-50mph, and you use one of the handlebar grips to make it go, and move both of them to make it brake. That’s about all you have to do. Most bikes will have a floor board for your feet. Shops should supply you with a couple of helmets, and insurance (which is mainly designed to cover damage to the bike, not so much you).
There are also bicycles for rent, and that’s fine in the (flat) area of central Chiang Mai for those that want a bit of exercise as well. Winding through crazy traffic can be challenging. There are no special “bike roads” (even if there were, cars would drive on them here). Be prepared to activate the eyes in the back of your head while riding a bike in Chiang Mai.
Car with Driver
In most places in the world, I would never consider a Car & Driver (mainly because of the expense), but it is perhaps the best option in Chiang Mai for flexibility, cost and making your time here hassle free. Any hotel concierge or travel agency on the street can arrange a Car & Driver for you, or you can make plans prior to arrival.
If you are in Chiang Mai as a small group, there are many drivers with vans. These vans are bigger and more comfortable than a typical van in the US, and with airline-style seating, good AC and a good sound system. The vans with driver usually have a flat daily rate in the neighborhood of 2000฿ per day (about USD $66). The vans can usually accommodate up to 12 people.
Drivers are usually very friendly and can assist you as a tour guide to a limited degree. Most speak limited “conversational English”. If you have just a basic idea where you want to go, such as the “wholesale crafts villages south of Chiang Mai”, he will know to take you right to the entrance of Baan Tawai Village. Want to buy Silk? He should be able to zip you right off to a good place for that. Main temples and tourist spots would be easy for him. Just don’t expect any kind of guided tour from him.
If you are looking for a private tour guide, that is also available, usually for a flat daily rate or a per tour rate. There are several sites that can offer this, including our own at TopThaiTours.com.
Car-Driver-Tours can also be arranged by your hotel concierge or any of the multitude of travel agencies around town.
Here are a couple of Chiang Mai car-driver sites that you can connect to for more info::
Top Thai Tours Ltd. (note that this is the tour company owned by my wife) This company charges an hourly rate of 250Baht (about $8.33 USD), with no charge for gas if it is 100 km or less in a day (more kilometers per day would be used only on trips to other towns quite a distance from CM).
(any other local drivers that want to be listed, just let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Payment for services are done at the end of the time you are working with the driver or at the end of each day. If he will be driving for you for three days, a full payment would be expected at the end of the three days when he takes you back to your hotel (or to the airport, or wherever is end of your time for him). Tipping to the driver is common for those warranted situations.
Hiring your own personal car and driver is going to take most of the transportation hassle out of your stay in Chiang Mai.
That’s about the full spectrum of transportation options for a Chiang Mai visitor, and I welcome any comments or other suggestions.