There are lots of ways of getting around Chiang Mai. The place really is small enough that you can go to most parts of it on foot if you like walking (although it can get pretty hot). It’s almost entirely flat, so walking and cycling are real options here. Check out the Chiang Mai map below for a quick overview of the city layout or read our Chiang Mai Destination Guide for more information.
Although there are some taxis in Chiang Mai, for the most part I don’t recommend using them unless you arrange it through your hotel or guesthouse. They almost never cruise around looking for passengers and I have no idea how you would call them to get picked up, except through your hotel.
The locals all use songthaews – utility vans with two rows of bench seats in the back that you can flag down as they pass by (if, in fact, they are not shouting at you to get in). In Chiang Mai most the songthaews are red so they are easily spotted, but there are also blue ones, white ones, green ones and yellow one out in the outer reaches of the city, so it can be a little confusing.
The red songthaews generally operate within Chiang Mai and nearby areas, while the others are more long haul. The white songthaews generally go east towards Sankampaeng. The yellow ones go north to Mae Rim. The blue ones go south to Lamphun. The green ones go north-east to Mae Jo.
I do see a lot of tourists using the songthaews so it can’t be too difficult, but I choose not to. If you do want to use them, the cost is 10-20B per entry, paid when you get in. When you get to where you want to go, you need to get the driver to stop and let you out (could be challenging, I think). Some songthaews have set destinations on the front of them like Doi Suithep or Doi Pui, in which case you just get in and go (price is around 30 Bt). You can also hire them out for a day for 700-800 Bt to take you all over the place and see the sights.
The tuk-tuks in Chiang Mai are very cheap, reliable and for the most part quite honestly run. Unlike in Bangkok or Phuket, they don’t tend to want to spirit you away to some jewellery trading centre or massage parlour, although no doubt there’s an odd one or two around who might. If you’re going to take a tuk-tuk you should always agree the price before you get in! Most trips within Chiang Mai will be around the 40-50 Bt, although we did have one experience where we ended up at the far end of a market street and all the drivers were charging 90 Bt to go back to the Tha Pae Gate – but this was because of the very heavy traffic and street closures. And really, it’s only US$3 so why worry about it? Once you make a deal, sit down, shut up and hang on because they drive like maniacs. But they rarely get into any difficulties and they really know their way around.
Another option in Chiang Mai are the tricycle rickshaws – known as Samlor – that are popular with the schoolkids and older locals. You will sometimes see a convoy of 20-30 samlor ferrying a tourist group from their hotel to a restaurant or similar. You can hire a samlor for about 100 Bt for a half-day tour of the city, or 10-20 Bt for a quick trip from one part of the city to another. You’ll usually find them waiting outside the larger hotels, near the Tha Pae Gate, or outside the market areas.
If you prefer to be self-directed, there’s also the option of hiring a scooter, a motorbike, a car or even a four-wheel drive. Although it can be challenging to contemplate getting into the Chiang Mai traffic (four lanes usually bumper to bumper on each side of the moat), once you get away from the city centre it’s reasonably easy to navigate and manage the traffic. Start by reading our 10 tips for riding motorbikes in Thailand first!
Scooters can be rented all over Chiang Mai from as little as 100B, but the average is more like 150B per day. Negotiate a discount for longer hire periods, especially for a week or more. Most places will expect you to hand over your passport as security, which can be challenging if you expect to do any cross-border shopping or similar. Some will let you pay extra cash instead of giving them your passport, but most insist in the document. You’ll get it back safely so long as you bring the scooter back in good condition.
I believe Thai law does not require a motorcycle license for small scooters, but you do need to wear a helmet. In most cases, you won’t even be asked if you have a car license, unless you happen to get stopped by the police. That’s unlikely unless you do something really stupid, as most Thai police don’t speak English, so they would not know how to ask you for anything anyway.
If a scooter is not your style (and I look ridiculous on one, because I am fairly large), there are lots of other options including full-blown motorcycles of 400-650 cc capacity from 400 Bt per day and even Harley-Davidsons if you can afford to rent them. I rented a Honda 400 Shadow (or similar) from The Pirate’s Cove for 350 Bt per day and it was OK, although the brakes were almost non-existent and I did burn my leg badly on the exhaust!
Car hire is reasonably priced, with a small sedan setting you back about 800 Bt per day. If you’re hiring a car you will need an international driving permit. We hired a Toyota 4×4 from Queen Bee Tours for about 850 Bt per day and it was pretty good to drive, although very heavy on fuel. The hire was hassle free and we drove all around northern Thailand in that truck.
If you’re looking for activities and attractions to keep you and the family occupied, check out our Things to do in Chiang Mai feature.