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Although Chiang Mai is Thailand's second city, it feels as though it is a world away from the hectic hustle and bustle of its rival Bangkok. This destination has the pleasant feel of an old town and is famous for crafts, its unique northern culture and access to the nearby mountains, which are best explored with the aid of car hire.
Who to Book With
There are five international car rental companies for tourists to choose from in Chiang Mai, as well as Thai Rent-a-Car, which is unique to Thailand. Thai Rent-a-Car is located at Chiang Mai Airport, which is also where Avis is found. Other choices include Alpha, Budget, National and Sixt. These companies accept online advance bookings, which is the best way to secure the car you want at the lowest price.
Best Time to go
Aside from the rainy season, which generally occurs over from June to October, Chiang Mai enjoys a pleasant climate most of the year and is generally a lot cooler and less humid than other parts of its country. If heading to the area during the Thai summer and particularly Thai New Year in April, it can be especially hot. During the high season, from December to early February, it is advised to reserve vehicles and hotel rooms in advance if possible.
Need to Know Essentials
When collecting a rental car in Chiang Mai, bookers must provide the following:
- A valid British driving license or an International Driving Permit
- A valid passport
- The credit card used to make the booking if reservations were made in advance
- Proof of booking, such as a print out
Chiang Mai does not encounter the same hectic traffic problems that other large cities in Thailand, such as Bangkok, often run into. The town centre is only a square mile, and parking spaces are easy to find, either at major shopping malls or on the premises of hotels and restaurants. It is often free to leave a vehicle on the premises of such establishments. A lot of the city is government by a one-way system, which makes navigation very straightforward.
The ideal way to travel around Chiang Mai and its surrounding areas is definitely by car, with most car rental companies advising the hire of a trustworthy 4X4 vehicle if you’re heading into the mountainous region. The public transport network around the city is rather limited, with few options other than taxis, which can be hard to get on the meter.
Due to its small size, Chiang Mai is without an internal rail network of its own. Travelling to and from the destination by train is quite popular, however, with numerous overnight trains running between Chiang Mai and cities such as Bangkok. This service is supplied by Thailand's state rail company, but don’t expect a speedy arrival.
Generally speaking, taxis aren't hailed in the streets of Chiang Mai as they are in Bangkok. Even if you do succeed in flagging a taxi down, it is then almost impossible to get a driver to turn his meter on, so fares must be decided before travelling. Booking in advance can be done by contacting the following number: +66 53 279 291. Alternately, red pick-up trucks known as songtaews can be flagged down from the side of the road so use as communal taxis, with most fares around town amounting to only 20 baht. Tuk-tuks are the bet form of private travel, taking you directly to your destination for around 40 baht per person.
Chiang Mai's internal bus service was discontinued in 2011. Despite this, the city still has two bus stations with coaches running in and out of Bangkok, Luang Prabang, Korat, Nan, Phitsanulok, Udon and various other destinations. Overnight buses are the cheapest way to get from one big city to another.
Temples, of which there are 300 just in the city alone, are the main drawer in Chiang Mai, with the most famous being Wat Chedi Luang, Wat Phan Tao and Wat Phra Singh. After visiting the market square on Tape Gate and perhaps purchasing local handicrafts, many like to take a peaceful stroll along the Ping River. Those with car hire usually always make sure they have time to explore Chiang Mai's surrounding hills and mountains.
Chiang Doa - Lies a pleasant drive of around one hour from the city, with lush scenery always in the background along the way. It is considered to be the best starting point for hikes and treks into the heart of some of Thailand's most famous mountains, and there are also caves and hot springs to explore here.
Chiang Rai - Located three hours north of Chiang Mai. This town provides access to Laos as well as to all of the history, tours and attractions related to the infamous Golden Triangle region.
Pai - Popular with hippies, is known for boasting an even more relaxed atmosphere than that on offer in Chiang Mai. The town is now very tourist-oriented, boasting a considerable temporary backpacker and traveller population. The food here, both Thai and Western, is exceptionally good and cheap.