While Chiang Mai can’t lay claim to large-scale mass transit systems (such as the MRT or the BTS in Bangkok), plenty of alternative options exist for getting around the city and beyond. Representing Thailand’s most iconic mode of conveyance and comfortably accommodating up to three passengers, tuk tuk are nowadays among the most expensive form of local transport. Even adopting the more cost-effective tactic of flagging down an empty vehicle from the side of a road, you’ll be hard pressed to have a tuk tuk driver budge a millimetre for less than 50 baht. Ordinarily, the fare should be negotiated -hard!- and agreed before boarding. Where tuk tuk congregate at certain venues in Chiang Mai, however, flat rates are advertised. Specifically, to travel from the main ‘Provincial Arcade’ bus station to Tha Phae Gate (a distance of about 4km) is priced at 120 baht whereas a one-way fare to the Nimman area (roughly 7km away) is 150 baht; by tuk tuk from Central Airport Plaza mall, it costs 80 baht to reach Chiang Mai Gate (a distance of around 3km) but only 100 baht to travel to Chang Phueak Gate (around 4km away) and 200 baht to cover the 13 kilometres to Meechok Plaza shopping centre.
Contrary to popular belief, motorcycle taxis have in fact operated from various strategic locations throughout Chiang Mai for quite some time. With drivers sporting high visibility yellow-striped pink vests, about 75% of the city’s complement of motorcycle taxis are based at the ‘Provincial Arcade’ bus station from where it costs a flat rate of 40 baht for a ride to CentralFestival shopping mall (a distance of approximately 1km), 120 baht to travel to the airport (10km away) and 15 baht for each additional kilometre.
Commonly liveried in characteristic yellow and blue, conventional private taxis are actually something of a rare breed in Chiang Mai occurring mostly at the airport, at both terminals of the ‘Provincial Arcade’ bus station, at the major shopping malls or otherwise available as private bookings. In sharp contrast to those in Bangkok, licensed taxis here can’t usually be hailed from the roadside and although equipped with a meter, drivers will hardly ever agree to use it instead preferring to apply a flat rate. Air-conditioned with the standard saloon-sized vehicle fitting up to 4 passengers, fares are comparable thereabouts to those for a tuk tuk over the same distance; a ride anywhere within the city limits starts at 150 baht but, save for late night or early morning bookings which attract a hefty premium, is normally charged at no more than 250 baht. The sole exception are those vehicles of the local Taxi Vhiang Ping cooperative which operate as part of the Grab ride-hailing service for they do offer metered fares albeit subject to a 50 baht surcharge.
In response to 90,000 expressions of interest received from foreign tourists as well as expat and Thai residents, the pioneer and undisputed champion of on-demand ridesharing Grab recently launched in Chiang Mai giving everyday local drivers the opportunity to use their own non—luxury vehicle as an independent form of public transport. With a base fare of just 20 baht plus an additional 2 baht per kilometre and 2 baht per minute, Grab’s low cost service is already revolutionising the way the city moves.
Translated more or less as ‘two rows’ and perfectly describing the dual-benched passenger seating arrangement in these covered pick-up trucks, songthaew serve as the predominant form of public transport in Chiang Mai. Their ubiquity coupled with inexpensive fares and extensive geographic coverage make songthaew the municipal public transport of choice for many Thai locals. Those operating strictly within the confines of the city are finished in various shades of red and referred to locally as rot daeng [literally ‘red car’]. The overwhelming majority of red songthaew don’t follow any particular route and either continually ply the main streets picking up and dropping off passengers on-demand or, to a lesser extent, are parked up at key locations awaiting custom. Unless chartering the entire vehicle, the standard fare -for distances up to approximately 5km- is 20 baht for an adult and asking or confirming the price before boarding the vehicle isn’t necessary; for distances beyond about 5km, though, the rate should be agreed in advance but seldom costs more than 30 or 40 baht per person.
Launched officially in May 2015, the ‘Chiang Mai Bus’ initiative sought to reform the local red songthaew concern by introducing a handful of fixed, timetabled routes and a transparent fare structure (15 baht or 10 baht for students irrespective of distance). Although relatively few red songthaew joined the project, those still active today can be readily distinguished from all other rot daeng by a sign board atop the windscreen bearing the ‘Chiang Mai Bus’ logo and, on most vehicles, the presence of a bright yellow banner down each side of the vehicle.
Songthaew painted in colours other than red travel along fixed routes between the city and the surrounding districts. Exactly as with red songthaew, an approaching vehicle can be flagged down from the roadside or, alternately, boarded from one or more locations at which they’re stationed. Yellow songthaew run variously to Mae Rim, Doi Saket, Chom Thong, Hang Dong and San Pa Tong; with flat fares from 15 to 40 baht according to distance; green songthaew travel to San Sai and, separately, the town of Mae Jo and cost 15 to 25 baht depending on distance; white songthaew go to San Kamphaeng for 15 baht; blue songthaew run to Saraphi and onwards to the neighbouring province of Lamphun with a ride priced at 15 baht; orange songthaew travel to Fang roughly three hours north of central Chiang Mai by way of the districts Mae Taeng and Chiang Dao at rates between 40 and 80 baht according to distance.
Even easier on the pocket, there exists a number of free songthaew (‘shuttle bus’) services operated by each of the major shopping malls (CentralFestival, Central Airport Plaza, Maya and Promenada) every day of the week which travel by way of designated tourist lodgings throughout the city.
Another welcome addition to the ‘Chiang Mai Bus’ scheme are the fleet of air-conditioned white city buses that now operate daily between the ‘Provincial Arcade’ bus station and both of Chiang Mai zoo (designated route B1) and the airport (route B2). Based directly in front of the main entrance to terminal 2 of the main bus station, a one-way fare is 15 baht or 10 baht for students regardless of the number of stops. To complement the service, the recently resurrected Khwan Wiang buses run every day between the village of the same name (in Hang Dong) and Chiang Mai airport via the ‘Old City’. Air-conditioned and unmistakable in their pink-hued appearance, tickets are marginally more costly at 20 baht per adult.
Likewise part of the ‘Chiang Mai Bus’ programme, the ‘Airport Shuttle Bus’ service operates two outward-only routes every day of the week from the airport to one of 25 select locations throughout the city. The flat fare is 40 baht between the hours of 07:00 and 21:00 with the price between 21:00 and 03:30 at the discretion of the driver. Similarly, the Baan Tawai Transport Service runs a fleet of shared minivans daily from the Baan Tawai handicraft village in Hang Dong as far north as Chiang Mai bus terminal 1 in the subdistrict of Chang Phueak by way of the airport and the ‘Old City’ and, separately, out to the bus station in the adjoining district of Saraphi. Vehicles are air-conditioned and distinctively marked with tickets costing either of 20 or 30 baht according to destination.
Better suited only to a short-term stay or casual use, push bicycles can be rented by the day or, more economically, on a monthly basis from the many local bike shops found throughout Chiang Mai (especially in and immediately around the ‘Old City’). The price for 24 hours hire starts from 40 baht for a regular ‘city’ bicycle and from 80 baht for a multi-geared mid-range mountain bike with monthly hire as low as 500 baht; besides the rental cost, bike shops expect an upfront security deposit amounting to 2000 baht and upwards.
The de facto mode of transport in Chiang Mai for locals and foreigners alike, however, is the motorbike. Offering convenience and value for money, rental prices differ according to the hire company, age of the vehicle, size of the engine, transmission type, time of the year as well as the term of the lease; essentially, the older the bike, the smaller the engine, the less automated the transmission, the further from the peak tou
rist season (November to February) and the longer the rental period, the greater the concession and the more negotiable the hire cost. Prices for the most popular and best all-rounder 125cc fully automatic scooters (models like the Click, Dream and Wave from Honda as well as the Suzuki Step and Yamaha Mio) range from 100 to 350 baht for 24 hours hire and 2000 to 4500 baht for monthly rental with even more favourable rates when leasing over the longer term (though normally not as economical as purchasing a motorbike outright if staying in Chiang Mai for a year or more). In lieu of relinquishing your passport as collateral, hirers will mandate a refundable security deposit anywhere between 1000 and 5000 baht. Under Thai law, a basic third-party insurance policy will be provided as standard but given the alarmingly high incidence of motorbike-related accidents on Chiang Mai’s roads, it would be seriously unwise not to pay a premium for fully comprehensive cover –through either the hirer directly or an independent insurer- no matter how experienced or confident a rider you are. Along with the rental cost, security deposit and insurance, you will, of course, have to fill up periodically with fuel (most commonly, whichever of gasohol 91 or gasohol 95); with little if any difference in price between the major oil and gas companies (Bangchak, Caltex, Esso, PTT, Shell and Susco) that supply the city’s filling stations, the prices currently at the pump are just under 28 baht for a litre of gasohol 91 and a little over 28 baht for an equivalent amount of gasohol 95.
How do you prefer to get around Chiang Mai? What do you usually spend on transportation every month? Can you think of ways to help improve the public transportation system in Chiang Mai? Speed your views on the matter to us by posting a comment below!