Often referred to as the northern capital and Thailand’s second city, Chiang Mai is the largest city in Northern Thailand. It was once the capital of the ancient Lanna Kingdom. A popular vacation destination, Chiang Mai has something to suit all tastes. With more than 500 temples, outdoor adventures galore, and a laid-back way of life, it offers a completely different experience from Bangkok. Chiang Mai’s beautiful nature is a major draw, providing respite from Bangkok’s urban jungle. Compare and contrast two of Thailand’s major hotspots, each of which offers plenty of fun and diversity, and you’ll see they feel many worlds apart.
Northern Thailand has slightly different seasons than Central Thailand. For example, in June the rainy season has already started in Bangkok, whereas Chiang Mai doesn’t typically start seeing rain until July. The average temperatures are lower in Chiang Mai than in Bangkok; this is especially noticeable during the cool season when you will probably want a lightweight jacket or sweater. Nighttime in the cool season in Chiang Mai can be particularly chilly, which can be a shock for people arriving from warmer Bangkok. Farmers burn the fields between late February and early April each year, which causes thick smog to hang in the air of Chiang Mai. It can irritate allergies and cause respiratory problems.
Flying from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is the quickest mode of transportation. Domestic flights depart from both Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) and Don Mueang International Airport (DMK) in Bangkok, landing at Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX). Low-cost carriers fly from Don Mueang Airport and include Thai AirAsia, Nok Air, and Thai Lion Air. You can also sometimes find great deals with Thai Smile, Bangkok Airways, Thai Airways, and Thai Vietjet Air, which all fly from Suvarnabhumi Airport. Compare fares and terms, as it can sometimes be worth paying a bit more for the airfare if it includes a checked baggage allowance. Flying can often cost the same as taking the train, especially if you book in advance. Budget flights start from around 1,000 THB (approximately 30 USD). The flight takes around one hour and 15 minutes and there are more than 50 flights every day of the week.
Several trains run between Bangkok’s Hua Lamphong Station and Chiang Mai Station every day. The journey usually takes between 12 and 15 hours. Delays are fairly common. Third-class tickets are the cheapest, though the wooden benches can quickly become very uncomfortable and the carriages can be stuffy and crowded. Seats aren’t allocated either. Second-class seats (that can recline) are the next cheapest option. Tickets typically cost around 500 THB (approximately 15 USD) in a carriage with fans; air-conditioned carriages are a little more expensive.
Night services are ideal for making the long journey more bearable, especially if you book a bunk in a sleeper carriage. Second-class bunks (in a fan carriage) cost around 800–1,000 THB (approximately 25–30 USD), and bunks in air-conditioned carriages cost a little more. The lower bunks are slightly more expensive in each carriage, as they provide more space. You could also opt for a bed in a first-class room. Rooms sleep four and are lockable.
Some services have carriages solely for females and their young children. Some trains are wheelchair accessible. Check details in advance, as not all services have each carriage type and all seating or sleeping options.
You can buy train tickets from all major train stations, through agents, and online. Booking at least a day in advance of travel (several days if your trip falls over a major Thai holiday) is highly recommended to ensure that you get the tickets that you want.
Buses between Bangkok and Chiang Mai take around 12 hours and there are several services, both during the day and at night, every day. Most buses to Chiang Mai leave from Bangkok’s Mo Chit Bus Station (the Northern Bus Station) and arrive at the Arcade Bus Station.
Travellers can choose between regular and VIP services, with the main differences being the price and comfort levels. Second-class government bus services cost around 450 THB (approximately 13.50 USD), while first-class government bus services cost around 550 THB (approximately 16.50 USD) and have toilets onboard, as well as air conditioning.
VIP buses vary in price depending on the operator, but are usually cheaper than 900 THB (approximately 27 USD). You can typically expect reclining seats, an onboard toilet, a small pillow and blanket (for night journeys), and a light snack and bottled water.
On all bus services, don’t pack valuables, cash, or important documents in luggage that will go in the storage area.