Chiang Mai may not have the transport infrastructure of Bangkok, but there’s still a well-oiled system in place for getting around town. The colored pick-up trucks called song thaews make up the backbone of Chiang Mai’s transportation system, but they’re backed by tuk-tuks, proper taxi cabs and a few brand new city buses.
The terminus of Thailand’s railway system is also in Chiang Mai, so long-haul buses are important for onward travel into northern areas. Whether you’re paying 20 baht for a short-haul journey down the street or 1,800 baht for the day-long haul to Phuket, you’ll need to use the public transport system at some point during your stay in Chiang Mai. The following is a quick guide to get you started.
Getting around Chiang Mai City
For the most part, transportation around Chiang Mai city proper is handled by tuk-tuks or song thaews, which are cheap and can carry several passengers. Tuk-tuks cost about three times as much as song thaews, but you don’t have to worry about them slowing down to pick up other passengers en route to your destination. Both modes of transport cost roughly 50 per cent more after hours.
You’ll see song thaews of other colors (i.e., not red) plying the major avenues in Chiang Mai. These operate on fixed routes according to a regular schedule, and they’re cheaper by far than most other forms of transportation. These are useful if you know exactly where you’re going, as you’ll need to ring the bell and disembark at the right time. All the signs on these trucks are in Thai, so only board if you’re confident that you’ve got the right one.
For years, there has been talk in Chiang Mai about setting up a proper city bus network. It’s finally starting to happen, though the local community still prefers to use song thaews. These buses follow fixed routes and connect to key locations around the city. They’re slow, but cheap, and there are usually plenty of seats open. Look for maps with these routes marked in free English language magazines and pamphlets available around the tourist districts.
Long distance buses
From the Arcade: This is the main bus terminal in Chiang Mai. Some people call it the ‘New Terminal’, to distinguish it from its older counterpart at Chang Pheuak. But you’ll get more mileage out of calling it the Arcade, as this is how most tuk-tuk, taxi and song thaew drivers refer to it themselves.
The Arcade bus station handles all of the connections to destinations outside of Chiang Mai province. Green Bus is the main carrier here, with routes connecting all over Northern Thailand. The company even offers a direct line via VIP bus to Phuket, which clocks in at a whopping 24 hours. Bear in mind that Green Bus operates out of the brand new terminal, which is across the street from the old terminal.
Minivan service to Pai is a major tourist service from the Arcade. Most of the routes operate with 15-passenger air-conditioned vans, though there are a few departures per day on slightly more comfortable miniature buses. Both cost the same, so it’s worth booking a ticket early if you prefer the bus, which is slightly less cramped.
Getting to the Arcade is easy. It’s located east of the city center along Kaewnavarat Road, near the intersection with the Superhighway. Red truck and tuk-tuk drivers from anywhere in the city are generally willing to take passengers here.
Chang Pheuak Bus Station: This is the other major long-distance station in Chiang Mai, but short-term tourists are less likely to pass through. All of the buses from Chang Pheuak Station connect to cities in Chiang Mai province, with one exception: the bus to Lamphun. Travel times on the routes out of Chang Pheuak are relatively short, so you won’t find any deluxe or VIP buses here. Common destinations from here include Chiang Dao and Fang.
Chang Pheuak station is immediately north of the old city. Head directly out of Chang Pheuak Gate (the North Gate) and turn right where the one-way road becomes two-way. It’s a long walk from Tha Pae Gate or a very short ride by red truck or tuk-tuk.