Getting around Chiang Mai as a tourist is no big deal. Honestly. There are so many options here at different price points and comfort levels. You can rent a scooter, hire a car, rent a bicycle, ride a tuk tuk, share a red taxi or walk. The choice is up to your preference and budget.
Walking around is likely the best way to get a real feel of the Old City and surrounding areas. It’s actually very easy and fun to walk the Old City, Nigh Bazaar area, Nimmanhaemin and the markets (Warorot, night markets, Sunday walking market). And walking ensures that you get to take in all that the City has to offer visually. We’ve found a lot of our favourite spots when we just let our feet be our guide. Here are some tips to make your walk comfortable and safe:
- Watch where you are going and watch your step AT ALL TIMES. The sidewalks or pavements here can be very dangerous as they’re not well maintained and in some areas, are non existent altogether. Once in awhile, a motorbike rider will use the sidewalk as their personal fast access lane so watch out for them as well! Some sidewalks double up as parking spots for motorbikes and cars so you have to go around them and at the same time make sure you don’t get sideswiped by a passing vehicle. Other things to watch out for are dog poop, garbage, low hanging electrical wires and uneven sidewalk. Dogs rule the streets here and so watch out for strategically placed dog poop (I swear, the dogs here are just waiting around to either bite your ankles or point and laugh when you stepped on their poop).
- Crossing the street is a game of life or death. Don’t ever, ever, ever, think that pedestrians have the right of way here. Don’t get us wrong, we do have pedestrian crosswalks here, it’s just nobody actually observes them. Remember that they drive on the left here. Don’t rush to cross the street and watch out for motorbike riders. It’s happened to us many times before that a car or a truck will let us cross the street only to almost get run over by a speeding motorbike!
- Don’t forget to hydrate and use sun protection. There’s nothing more irritating than coming home from a day of sightseeing feeling sick from dehydration and sun exhaustion! The sun is strong here and the heat is difficult to adjust to specially if you’ve come from a colder country. Remember to always use sun protection like hats, umbrellas, sunscreen and keep yourself hydrated. Before coming to Thailand, we purchased a cooling cloth from Mountain Equipment Co-Op and I have to say that little blue cloth has saved me from overheating on many occasions.
Tuk tuks are a great way to travel around because they’re fast and it’s part of the Thai experience. You will need to agree on a price before getting on and it’s a good idea for you to map out your route as you’re riding it (we used Google map) so you don’t get taken to a place you don’t want to go. Keep in mind that the first price they will offer you is the highest and so a friendly negotiation won’t hurt. You will still likely pay more than a local, but as a tourist you’re also paying for the experience. Tuk tuks are great way to beat the traffic. They will take you wherever you want to go as they don’t have specific routes. Tuk tuk drivers can be aggressive with many breaking the rules of the road to get you to your destination fast so prepare for an exciting ride! And if you’re sensitive to dust and fumes, make sure you bring a handkerchief to cover your mouth and nose.
Tuk tuk drivers can take you anywhere you like including different attractions outside the City. You just have to agree on a price and pick up time.
Song Taews are also called Red Taxis. It’s easy to spot them because 1) they’re red and 2) they look like jeeps with an extended back. So far, from what we have experienced, some of them have routes and some of them can take you wherever you want to go. They’re generally cheaper than tuk tuks specially if you share one with other riders going your way. And you’re exposed to the elements a lot less (still have to deal with fumes and dust though). A lot of the red taxis we’ve seen are clean and well maintained. You can also hire a red taxi for however long you want or to take you outside Chiang Mai (Hang Dong for the quarry or to the airport) or to take you to specific tourist destinations (i.e. Doi Suthep, Tiger Kingdom, Old City). Again, you can negotiate with the driver or conductor before getting on. You pay your driver or conductor when you get to your location.
Price per rider is from 20-60 baht depending on where you are going and if you are riding with others. You will see different colours of these song taews, but try to stick to the red ones. The white, blue and yellow ones go farther out of the Old City and to different towns, but the red ones travel within Chiang Mai.
You can hire a motorbike here for about 150 baht (CDN $5/6) per day. You can rent a bike daily, weekly or monthly. Scooters or motorbikes are a great way to travel Chiang Mai if you’re adventurous and brave. Having said that, if you’re thinking of renting one, make sure you at least know how to drive one properly. So many tourists eagerly rent one because they think it’s a cheap, easy way to get around. But here’s the thing, a lot of them don’t actually know how to drive a scooter properly, let alone have the proper license to drive one. And Chiang Mai is definitely not a sleepy town. The traffic is bad here. The driving style is very different from what we are used to (first off, they drive on the left hand side of the road) and rush hour is mad chaotic. MAD. Thailand is rated second in a list of countries with the most road accidents. So use your common sense and practice safe driving!
Do your research when it comes to rental companies. Make sure you have insurance, a proper helmet and a bike that’s well maintained. Lastly, WEAR A HELMET. It might not look cool, it might mess up your hair, but it will keep your head somewhat safe when you get into the inevitable bike accident. Be smart. Be safe. Arrive alive.
Here are pointers when renting a motorbike
- You will need to provide your passport or a copy of it (offer a copy first and see if they’re okay with that) and contact information (telephone number and/or hotel name).
- Make sure you have the right amount of cash for the transaction.
- Rent a bike from a reputable rental company. A good rental company will offer damage insurance for the bike and health insurance for the driver and passengers. Don’t cheap out when it comes to paying for insurance because there is a high chance you will need it and you don’t want to have to pay out of pocket for any damage to the bike or the other person.
- Inspect the bike to make sure it’s in proper working order before agreeing to rent it and inspect the helmet they provide you with for any cracks or missing parts. It might be a good idea to take pictures of any dents or scratches on the bike because you don’t want any confusion later on.
- Don’t lose the copy of your contract. If you’ve provided a security deposit instead of your passport or a copy of it, make sure that the deposit amount is included in the contract.
- WEAR A HELMET. A police officer will flag down anyone not wearing a helmet and charge them a fine. If you’re a tourist who decided not to wear a helmet, prepare to pay a lot of fines along with the beautiful possibility of cracking your head open in the event of an accident.
- Wear appropriate clothing and shoes. Protect yourself from the heat and from road burns. Even a small accident can peel off your skin if you’re wearing a tiny tank top, short shorts and flip flops!
- This should go without saying, but DON’T DRINK AND DRIVE.
You can also rent a car here, but prepare to pay a lot. There are car rental agencies at the airport and around town, but again they cost a lot more than just using your own two feet and public transport. We’ve seen some car rental agencies offering a driver to go with your car rental, but again, prepare to pay more for that service. There are a lot of options at the airport for car rentals like Budget, Avis, National, but there are also some car rental places in the Old City area. Honestly, we recommend renting a car only if you’re travelling outside of Chiang Mai to places like Chiang Rai, the Golden Triangle, etc. If you don’t need to travel outside the City, stick to the other modes of transportation mentioned above.
Taxis are available, but they usually just take you to and from the airport. You’d be hard pressed to find a taxi you can flag down driving around the Old City. Taxis generally stay around the airport area. If you do need one, ask your hotel reception for information. Taxis are metered, but they have fixed fees to and from the airport.
Lastly, if you want to drive yourself around Chiang Mai, here’s a link to driving tips to keep in mind: http://tielandtothailand.com/driving-tips-thailand/
Well, that’s our list of how to get around Chiang Mai. We hope it helps you explore, enjoy and get to know this beautiful city!