You won’t find a network of underground subways and buses but getting around Chiang Mai as a tourist is easy. You have public and private options available to you and all at very reasonable price points. I spent most of my time on a scooter but had a choice between Uber, tuk tuks, and songthaews if there was a group of us and for going out at night.
A scooter is the best way to get around the city and is very cheap to rent at around 200 baht per day, or about $8. Scooters rule in Chiang Mai and you’ll find plenty of locals and tourists riding on them. Parking lots have designated scooter parking and you can park them almost anywhere off the street, making them very convenient if you’re exploring and stopping often.
I’d recommend having prior riding experience though: you’re expected to weave your way in traffic or else you’ll get honked at by fellow scooterists if they see even the smallest opening to pass through, the one-way streets and off-ramps around Old City require you to constantly merge, and, the worst part for me, keep a watch out for stray dogs walking out on to the street. This happened multiple times and once when I was on the highway (terrifying), so experience is a must.
If you’re renting a scooter, always have your International driver’s license with you and wear a helmet. The police have been setting up checkpoints all over the city and will expect you to pay a fine if you’re missing either. They especially prey on tourists so never leave without your license and helmet.
Uber in Chiang Mai is reliable and dirt cheap — I don’t think I ever waited longer than 5 minutes for one and averaged about $2 per ride. I met some really cool Uber drivers there, including a tour guide who drove in-between his tours and an international pop singer (allegedly) who decked her car out in everything Hello Kitty.
All the vehicles are newer models and very comfortable to ride in. Unlike Bali, there are no Uber-free zones but drivers may get low key conflict-averse and avoid stopping near tuk tuk drivers. Tip: if you get a pick-up truck ask to sit in the truck bed!
I hardly rode in tuk tuks because they were more expensive than Uber but were an option when I wasn’t in a wifi network or needed door-to-door service. They seem to be more of a tourist thing since I rarely saw any locals taking them. There are no meters or set fare so you have to negotiate on a price before you get on, and expect a higher price if you’re hailing one down in a touristy area. You can fit about 3-4 people on a tuk tuk and most drivers will have a good sense of where you want to go, but it’s always a good idea to know a popular landmark near your destination, have a map handy, or directions in Thai that you can hand to the driver.
Songthaew or “red trucks”
Songthaews are the red pick-up trucks with a roof that you’ll find everywhere in Chiang Mai. They can be slightly complicated if you haven’t been on one so they deserve a more in-depth explanation.
Hailing one down
Songthaews don’t have a route that they drive on but rather operate like a shared taxi. You can flag one down by raising your hand when you see one driving on the street like you would a cab, or sit at a designated songthaew stop which looks like a bus shelter. If you’re walking on the sidewalk, a driver may honk at you to see if you need a lift.
When your driver stops, go up to the window, tell the driver where you want to go, and they will either decline or accept. This is dependent on where they’re currently headed if they have other passengers or if the fare is worth it to them (this is an important point to note; see cost section below).
Specific addresses are tough so give them a nearby landmark or pull up Google Maps on your phone with your destination pinned. During peak hours you may find a driver’s assistant, usually their wife, who maps out the routes of each passenger and directs the driver where to go.
Don’t be discouraged if a driver declines your ride. I’ve sometimes had to go down rows of songthaews until I found one that would take me. It’s all subjective so just keep at it. If you’re having zero luck, grab a tuk tuk.
The reason why most drivers will decline you is because the typical fare is 20 baht per person and they’re weighing whether your destination is worth the drive.
That said…never, never, never ask for the price.
The general rule is if you tell them where you’re going and they accept without saying anything further, the assumption is that you’re paying 20 baht for the ride. When you ask for the cost, you’ll definitely get the tourist markup.
If your destination is further out the driver may ask for more but use your judgement. I was sometimes asked to pay 30 or 40 baht to go to the other side of town which is reasonable but 20 baht should cover most rides within the city.
Riding the songthaew
Get on through the back and have a seat. You could have the truck all to yourself or sit alongside other passengers. The shocks on the trucks are terrible so expect a bumpy and bouncy ride! If you’re feeling adventurous, you can grab on to the rails and hang off from the back like a total badass.
Getting off and paying the driver
Out of all the songthaews I took in Chiang Mai, only a few provided door-to-door service. Most will stop on the main road for you to get off so that they can continue on and not have to detour around small side streets. It helps to follow along on Google Maps (the GPS will work even if your data is off) so you can ask the driver to stop when you’re close to your destination).
To stop, you can knock on the driver window or press the bell on the ceiling. You pay at the end of your ride so head on over with your cash. It’s okay to chat with the driver through the window on the left side so that you’re not standing on the street.
Hiring a songthaew
You can also charter a songthaew for day trips. Rates will need to be negotiated with the driver but for example, a fare from the city up to Doi Suthep will cost about 1,000 baht and Sticky Falls will run about 2,000-3,000 baht.