It’s still fairly cheap to travel in Thailand, especially if you’re used to the prices in for example Northern Europe 😉
One of the first tips I’d give to people wanting to travel through Thailand without breaking the bank is to relax a bit. It’s very easy travelling there, and in most cases it’ll be cheaper for you to figure things out as you go instead of booking tickets in advance.
Secondly, don’t just buy from a tourist agency at all costs. It might be easier, but in some cases it’s both cheaper and better to go to the bus- or train station.
Decide what’s important: do you want to travel with tourists or Thais, and do you have plenty of time so you can go for the cheapest option available or is it better for you to pay a bit more and get to your destination faster?
From Bangkok to Chiang Mai / Chiang Mai to Bangkok:
Fastest: Flight. Can be done fairly cheap if you book a ticket a bit in advance – check the low-cost airlines such as AirAsia, Thai Lion Air and Nok Air.
Cheapest: Bus. There are a lot of companies and types to choose from! The cheapest will be to book a tourist bus departing from Khaosan Road in Bangkok. The drive takes approximately 10 hours, so you’ll probably want to take the trip in the evening and arrive early morning in Chiang Mai. Personally, I wouldn’t recommend these buses unless you are on a super tight budget. The buses are usually quite old and completely full, not very comfortable and not with the best and safest drivers. It’s worth it to pay a few hundred baht extra and go with a bus company such as Nakhonchai Air. The bus companies have different classes of buses, and they’re called things like “gold class”, “VIP”, etc. As long as you get a bus class with a swanky name you’ll be just fine, the buses are safe, nice and you even get food and snacks onboard! Tip: Bring a sweater as the bus tends to get quite cold – the nicer category of bus you pick, the cooler the temperature inside.
For the backpacker experience: Train. The night train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is the slowest way to go, but comfortable enough if you take the sleeper train. Here it’s fine to choose second class, and you have a choice between aircon or fan. Personally, I prefer the fan option (also cheaper!) because it gets too chilly for me with the aircon. After a little while on the train, staff will make your bed, and you can draw a curtain to get your privacy from the other three people in the compartment.
Many backpackers take the train, so you’ll easily find someone to talk to. There’s also a food wagon in case you didn’t bring enough snacks.
Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai and return:
You can either catch a bus (Greenbus) from the bus station or book a minivan from your hostel, hotel or at a travel agency in town. The minivan will pick you up at your accommodation, but be aware that there might not be lots of space for your baggage and that the minivan is most likely a bit late picking you up. Otherwise it works alright and the prices don’t differ too much depending on your choice of bus.
Chiang Mai to Pai:
The best way to go is by minivan. Book it from your accommodation or from a travel agency in town. The trip takes around 3 hours and there’s 762 curves on the road which is also steep as you’re going up the mountain. It can get rough, and I’d say there’s a pretty big risk someone on the minivan will puke. To make sure it won’t be you, don’t eat anything too heavy before your trip and if you tend to get carsick, take a pill in advance. If you can, try your best to get a seat in front. And in any case, just bring a bag (or two) in case all goes wrong.
It’s actually nice going to Pai on a motorbike as the scenery is lush and beautiful and the many curves don’t feel as bad. However, you should never even contemplate going if you’re not an experienced motorbike rider with no problems driving on the left and going up mountains. It’s dangerous for those who don’t take it seriously and I’ve seen many reckless backpackers arriving back in Chiang Mai with a bad experience.
Remember these rules of thumb:
Bangkok is the travel hub: from here you can basically go anywhere pretty easily
Going from Bangkok to the north (i.e. Chiang Mai) is done very cheap by bus but takes approximately 9-10 hours
Don’t be afraid to consider flying if you don’t have much time – domestic flights are usually affordable and sometimes your time is extra precious
Don’t feel the need to book everything way in advance UNLESS you’re traveling around the time of a major holiday where loads of tourists visit (i.e. Songkran or Yi Peng)