We’ve used 5 modes of cheap and easy transport here in Chiang Mai. Ranked based on our preference they are: Walking, Red Trucks, Tuk Tuks, Grab and Metered Taxis. We have completely avoided using motorbikes and e-scooters so far!
First a word about motorbikes: many expats and nomads in Chiang Mai rent or buy a Vespa-type motorbike. They are ubiquitous here.
Despite the fact that I have an international drivers license with a motorcycle endorsement (Thai authorities are cracking down on requiring one) as well as many many hours of experience driving all sorts of two-wheelers, we have chosen to use public transport around Chiang Mai. It’s cheaper, less dangerous (during my brief visit to Chianmai Ram hospital I saw many gruesome bike injuries) and no parking hassles.
And then there are e-scooters. Just like every major city and suburban area in the world, e-scooters have made their way to Chiang Mai. You know the drill: download an app, put in your payment, scan the e-scooter and scoot away. E-scooters are a terrific option in areas with bike lanes or wide sidewalks. Chiang Mai has neither so we have avoided them. We don’t see a lot of locals – or anyone, for that matter – using them the way we have in many other cities around the world.
So here is how we DO get around Chiang Mai without a motorbike:
Walking is by far our favorite and most common mode of transport in Chiang Mai. Traffic is FOR REAL here in Chiang Mai, particularly in Nimman in the morning and afternoon rush hours. It can take a half-hour to go a half mile.
So whether we are just out for a stroll in Nimman or making a trek to shopping or dinner in another neighborhood, we walk a LOT here.
It’s a bit hot during the day for walks (although we do them every day), but the evenings are perfectly lovely for long walks.
Applying a little caution and patience along with a little aggressiveness gets you across even the busiest streets.
Pro tip: traffic lights around the city tend to be very long. So traffic will move for a while but eventually it will stop – again – for a while. So just apply a little patience.
#2: Red Trucks
Red trucks circulate around the city and are the most common and cheapest form of public transport around central Chiang Mai. These trucks serve as shared rides: you wave at one and it either stops or not (if not, no worries as another will be coming soon).
When it stops you communicate your destination (English is pretty commonly spoken but we find that having a phone with the destination on a map is helpful in overcoming potential language barriers).
If the driver is heading in the general vicinity of your destination he will nod and you hop in the back. If he is not, he shakes his head and pulls away (again, if this happens it’s no big deal as another will be along presently).
Pro tip: It’s important to have at least a general understanding of the relative location of your destination because, for example, if you need to go north but are standing out the southbound side of the road the drivers will keep nodding – because they are headed away from your destination, not toward it!
When you do jump in the back there may already be people in the truck. The truck may pick up other passengers and/or drop other passengers off along the way. But meeting new people and seeing new places is part of the fun!
Because of this business model it’s not always the quickest way to get somewhere. Then again it costs only 30 Baht (~$1US) per person – although if your destination is far away the driver may ask for up to 50 Baht pp when he picks you up.
There is a button in the back to alert the driver to stop if you want to hop out…or you notice he has passed your destination! At your destination you pay the driver the 30 Baht pp or whatever price was agreed to at pick-up.
It really is the simplest and cheapest option for just about any trip around Chiang Mai when we don’t feel like walking.
Other colored trucks serve the suburbs but we’ve not tried those yet.
#3: Tuk Tuks
Tuk tuks tend to bring out one of two reactions to travelers: delight or disgust.
Yes they are loud and produce a lot of smog and sometimes hardball negotiations.
But sometimes you just need to get somewhere quickly, and it IS fun to zip along in one.
We’ve used them a couple times to cover a lot of ground quickly, particularly from Nimman to the East side of the city for which they charge around 150 Baht (a little under $5US).
We avoid the most unpleasant part of any tuk tuk experience – the negotiation. We ask a price and if we feel it’s too much we just walk away and look for a red truck or another tuk tuk.
Grab is the Uber/Lyft of Chiang Mai.
We’ve tried it a few times and getting in an air conditioned car can be a blessing in the middle of a hot day.
The major advantage is the convenience of auto-pay by credit card rather than cash.
But there is not enough density of Grab drivers in Chiang Mai meaning long-ish waits (10-15 minutes) before a driver arrives. In that time it’s not uncommon to see 5 to 10 red trucks go by! The price isn’t bad though – about the same as a tuk tuk.
#5: Metered Taxis
Metered taxis are rare in Chiang Mai in our experience. In fact the only one we’ve used was the one that took us from the airport downtown. But with so many other options they are unnecessary anyway.
That’s our list of cheap and easy transportation in Chiang Mai!! Bottom line is that while motorbikes are the most common form of transport and would likely be necessary if we had a regular commute, one can get along in Chiang Mai cheaply and easily without one!