Thailand is a big country, and if sitting on a bus for 11 hours is not your idea of a relaxing time, you may very well consider domestic flights. Deregulation of the sector, which was never very expensive to begin with (at least by Western standards), has allowed the arrival of new operators: with a little research, it is possible to fly almost anywhere in the country for less than 2,000 baht. Note that various (often significant) taxes and surcharges are always added to the advertised prices.
The low-cost airline AirAsia, which covers the entire ASEAN region, offers extensive coverage of international and domestic routes in Thailand and offers tickets at very reasonable prices if booked in time; however, prices rise steadily when the planes are full. It is often the cheapest option, sometimes even cheaper than bus or train, if you book at least a week or two in advance. A320s fly from Bangkok to many countries, including Cambodia, China, Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia. Recently, they have started showing “all-inclusive” prices when booking (although these still do not include optional extras such as baggage fees). Online booking is easy and can even be done by mobile phone, but must be done at least 24 hours in advance; ticket sales at the check-in counter end one hour before departure time.
Bangkok Airways presents itself as “Asia’s Boutique Airline” and has a monopoly on flights to its own airports on Ko Samui (now shared with Thai Airways), Sukhothai and Trat. This is a rather expensive and “fancy” option; however, their Discovery Airpass with fixed segment fares can be quite inexpensive, especially if you use it to fly to Siem Reap, (Cambodia) or Luang Prabang, (Laos). The Discovery Airpass can only be purchased abroad.
In 2004, NokAir flew bright colours with a bird’s beak painted on its nose. Mainly owned by Thai Airways, it competes with Air Asia on price and is a pretty good choice overall with a fairly extensive domestic network. It experienced severe turbulence in 2008 and reduced its flights by two-thirds, but now seems to have recovered.
NokMini flies mainly in the north of Thailand and is the only airline offering flights between Chiang Mai-Pai, Mae Hong Son, Nan and Chiang Rai. Formerly APG Airlines.
Orient Thai, until recently One-Two-Go, is by far the shabbiest of Thailand’s major airlines. It flies a bunch of old planes with poor safety records, including a crash in Phuket in 2007 that killed 90 people. The fleet was grounded and withdrawn, but it has been flying again since late 2010. Unlike most LCCs, the price of their tickets doesn’t change often, which means they are often the cheapest option for last-minute flights. If you are shorter than 1.80 m, take a seat in the last row, unless you want to spend the whole flight with your knees leaning against the front seat.
Thai Airways International is Thailand’s most reliable, frequent and comfortable airline, but generally more expensive than other airlines (watch out for their special offers). Travel agents often sell only Thai Airways (and Bangkok Airways) tickets; you can also book online. Thai Airways is a member of the Star Alliance; for all domestic flights, except for certain special fares, you get at least 500 Star Alliance miles, which can (partially) offset the price difference.
The Thai National Railways (TRS) has a 4,000 km network covering most of the country from Chiang Mai in the north to the Malaysian border (and beyond) in the south. Compared to buses, most trains are relatively slow and prone to delays, but they are safer. Fruit, snacks and cooked meals are available from vendors at most stations.
Point-to-point fares depend on the type (speed) of the train and the car class. There are three classes of service:
- Two-bed sleeping compartments in first class (chan neung) with individually adjustable air-conditioning are available on some trains, though prices are sometimes accompanied by low fares.
- Second class (Chan Song) is a good compromise, as it costs about the same as first class coaches and offers a comparable level of comfort. Some 2nd class trains are air-conditioned, others are not; air-conditioning costs a little more. Second class berths are comfortable and inexpensive, with the narrower upper berths costing slightly less than the wider lower ones. Catering and sanitary facilities are basic. The 2nd class express multiple unit trains have reclining seats and refreshments are included in the fare; unlike all other Thai passenger trains, they can rival buses in terms of speed, but cannot carry bicycles.
- Third class (chan saam) is the cheapest way to travel in Thailand, with almost nominal fares, and can be a lot of fun. Sometimes the tuk-tuk drivers return home with a bag of rice and a bottle of cheap whisky to accompany them. As a farang (foreigner), you are guaranteed to be the centre of attention – quite pleasant in small doses, but 10 hours of this journey can be a bit much. Some 3rd class trains have wooden seats, others are upholstered; some connections can be booked in advance, others not; refreshments are available from vendors along the corridors.
Advance booking is recommended, especially for berths. You may not be able to buy a ticket on the day of your trip. Buy a day in advance if possible. Tickets for all main routes can be purchased at travel agencies for a service fee (50-200 baht/ticket), or you can book directly with SRT by emailing [email protected] for an additional 200 baht/reservation.
You can transport your motorbike on the same train you are travelling on. Not all trains have luggage trolleys, so check with the ticket office. The shipping costs for motorbikes are approximately the same as the price of a first class ticket on the same train.
Important: SRT has stopped selling electronic tickets on its website as of 14 January 2013. It is not stated whether this is a temporary or permanent measure.
Comprehensive information on routes, timetables and ticket prices as well as interesting videos can be found on seat61.com.
Thailand’s roads are vastly superior to its neighbours in Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, but the driving is still quite dangerous. Drunk driving, speeding and reckless overtaking are depressing. Bus and taxi drivers (especially for private companies) work inhuman shifts and often take drugs to stay awake – with predictable and tragic consequences. This is common with motorbikes – even police! – ding near the pavement on the wrong side of the road. Fatalities rise rapidly as major festivals approach, especially in Songkhran, where passers-by often throw water on passing cars and bicycles. Many drivers do not use their headlights at night, which multiplies the risks, and it is advisable to avoid or minimise road travel at night.
Note that unlike neighbouring countries (except Malaysia), traffic in Thailand is on the left side of the road and Thai cars are usually driven on the right. All official road signs are in Thai and English.
Hiring a car to explore on your own is a cost-effective way to get off the beaten track and avoid the constant hassle of local taxi/tuk drivers. Most main roads are signposted in Thai and English, and the traffic culture is not as bad as some would have you believe. Keep an eye on both mirrors to avoid overtaking vehicles, including 18-wheelers and scooters.
Traffic on main roads travels at 100-120 km/h, on smaller roads it’s usually 80 km/h. Petrol stations are common and most Thais are more than willing to give directions despite language barriers.
Drive very defensively at first and watch what the locals are doing. Of course, it helps to get used to driving on the left side of the road, which might distract some western drivers.
Driving under the influence of alcohol is both illegal and dangerous, and driving at night also increases the risk of accidents – even if you are sober, many others are not.
If you travel by public transport – bus, train, plane – you may be shocked at the difference in cost between long-distance and local transport. A 119-kilometre journey between Khon Kaen and Udon Thani by minibus costs 84 baht, or 0.71 baht per kilometre. A three-kilometre trip from the bus station to a hotel costs 60-100 baht, or 20-33 baht per kilometre (November 2015).
Renting a car usually costs between 1,200 and 1,500 baht if you choose an economy car like a Toyota Vios. Most international companies are based in Thailand. Also check the city guides of some cities to find reputable local car rental companies, which are often a little cheaper. You can choose between international companies like Budget and Avis, or you can book with a local company like www.thailandcarsrentals.com. Check the documentation and make sure everything is done according to regulations. Carry out the necessary checks and inform the car rental company of any damage before using the vehicle.
VIP? Very inferior product
Travel agencies, especially those on Khao San Street in Bangkok, are willing to sell you VIP bus tickets. Some routes have VIP buses (with reclining seats, air conditioning and TVs), while others have minibuses or other means of transport. Some lines (such as the one from Khao San to Siem Reap) are known to try to scam you several times along the way, but take it easy and you will be fine. The most important thing is to have your valuables with you. If a suitcase or large backpack is stowed under the bus, make sure it is locked and does not contain anything of monetary value. Remember that all agents sell exactly the same thing. So if some offer you a better bus for a higher price, you will probably get exactly the same thing for a higher price. The big agents will probably tell you the truth about buses and journey times, but you can shop around in the cheapest place and get the same price. Be aware that many routes have interchanges at various points, but you will reach your destination. Example: Khao San in Ko Lanta involves a VIP bus to Suratani, then a short jeep ride to a public bus (soft seat, but not VIP) to Krabi. In Krabi you are then taken by minivan to Ko Lanta, using two different ferries. The Khao San buses are reserved for foreigners and are never used by Thais, who prefer the BKS public buses.
Buses run all over the country and the state bus company BKS (บขส Baw Kaw Saw), known in English simply as the Transport Company, has a terminal in every province, regardless of size.
In general, the BKS buses are a good option, both in terms of price and comfort. There are also BKS-approved private buses operating on the same routes from the same terminals at the same fares, and these are also very good. Beware of illegal bus companies operating from the tourist areas (especially Khao San Road) and subsidising slightly cheaper tickets with poorer facilities, timetables and security. Be especially wary of non-government “VIP” buses, which often turn out to be cramped minivans – and you don’t realise it until you’ve paid in advance.
- Local – relatively slow, can be cramped when full (although there is always room for one more), and stop at every village and stall along the way. Many are of greater songthaew flavour. Not suitable for long-distance travel, but possibly the only cheap way to travel locally.
- Express (burp duan) – skips a few stops, but otherwise has no frills. Recognisable by their orange colour. Size varies, with the largest having about 65 seats (five seats per row) and an open space across the width of the bus near the back door so you can carry your backpack, bike, bag of rice, live chickens, etc.
- Second class (Chan Song) – skips more stops but often takes a less direct route than first class / VIP / S-VIP. Blue and white with an orange stripe, usually 45-48 seats per bus, air-conditioned (some offer blankets, some do not). Most do not have toilets on board, although frequent stops are not a problem.
- First class (chan neung) – They usually take the most direct routes and make few stops. Blue and white, air-conditioned, ceiling usually provided, fewer (larger, longer) seats (usually 40, but some double-decker types can hold more than 60 people), snacks and drinking water included. Onboard toilets for all but the shortest connections.
- “VIP” – as in first class, but with only 32-34 seats, which offer more legroom and recline. Basic meals are included and a freshly laundered and shrink-wrapped blanket is provided. Also blue and white (or sometimes blue and silver), but usually signed “VIP”.
- “S-VIP” – The Super VIP is very similar to the VIP except that there are only 24 seats, which are wider – the aisle is staggered, with each row having a pair of seats on the right and a single seat on the left. Mainly used in night service.
Some buses may be equipped with noisy TVs and sound systems, so bring earplugs just in case. On long-distance buses, if your ticket gives you a front row seat, you may have to change seats if a monk gets on.
If you are travelling a long distance by bus during the day, take a minute to determine which side of the bus is sunny and which is shaded. For example, if you take a 9-hour bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok (heading south), the seats on the right side will be bathed in sunlight all day (curtains are provided), so the left side is preferred by most.
As with train travel, pre-booking and e-ticketing are available on some bus routes connecting Bangkok with the accessible provinces and vice versa. Electronic tickets can be booked and purchased at travel agencies, bus line websites and online ticketing systems such as 12go.asia.
Other coach companies :
- Green Bus Corporation (based in Chiang Mai).
Minivan services are ubiquitous, albeit under the radar, as minivans are usually anonymous grey Toyota vans with no company markings. They serve shorter routes, such as Krabi in Phuket, about 180 km, or the Victory Monument in Bangkok in Hua Hin, about 200 km. The supposed advantage of the minibus is speed, as they move quickly once they are on the road. The disadvantages are that they are expensive compared to normal bus travel, can be uncomfortable as they are usually crowded and have little space for luggage. Take minibuses from bus stations. Do not take minibuses that offer to pick you up at your hotel. They will pick you up, but you will then spend the next hour going to other hotels to pick up other passengers. You will then be taken to an aggregator where all the passengers picked up will get off to wait for the minivan to take you to their respective destinations. You will then probably be driven to a bus station to transfer to a third and final minivan. It is best to sleep in and then go to the bus station to book your (cheaper) minibus ticket, which will save you two hours of unnecessary inconvenience.
A songthaew (สองแถว) is a vehicle based on a truck, with a pair of benches in the back, one on each side – hence its name, which means “two rows” in Thai. In English tourism literature they are sometimes referred to as “minibuses”. By far the most common type is the pickup-based type, which has a roof and open sides. The larger models are minibuses that can be fitted with windows and an extra middle seat. The smaller models are converted micro-vans, with a rear-facing front seat and a front-facing rear seat.
Songthaews are widely used as local buses (usually the cheapest way to travel short distances) and also as taxis; sometimes the same vehicle is used for both. Be careful if you ask a songthaew to take you to a place where no one is sitting in the back, the driver might charge you the price of the taxi. In this case, check the fare before you get in.
The name tuk-tuk is used to describe a variety of small and light vehicles. The vast majority of them have three wheels; some are completely custom-made (e.g. the ubiquitous Bangkok tuk-tuk), others are partly based on motorbike components (mainly engine, steering, front suspension, fuel tank, driver’s seat). A relatively recent development is the four-wheeled tuk-tuk (essentially a microvan songthaew) found in Phuket.
Tuk-tuks are small, noisy and perhaps dangerous; but perhaps worst of all, as a passenger you can’t see anything because of the low roofline. To catch even a glimpse of the passing scene, you practically have to lie on your back.
You will often find yourself at the mercy of the tuk-tuk driver when it comes to prices, as you probably have no idea what an acceptable Thai raa kaa (“Thai price”) is and will probably have to spit out a raa kaa farang (“farang price”). Even if you know the Thai price, the driver may not accept it on principle. If you pay with a higher-value ticket, it is also likely that the driver will complain about not having change. In this case, try to settle the bill at a nearby shop.
Metered taxis are ubiquitous in Bangkok and increasingly popular in Chiang Mai, but are rare in other parts of the country. When they are available, they are an excellent means of transport – insist on metered driving. Beware of waiting taxis in tourist areas. They are looking for a tourist to take their taxi without a meter. Always use the meter! Most drivers do not speak English, so ask your hotel staff to write the names of your destinations in Thai to show the driver.
As in almost all of Southeast Asia, motorbikes (motosai) are the most common form of transport of all; the most popular models are the 100- to 125-cc direct haulers. They are widely used as taxis, with fares starting at 10 baht. Negotiate the fare with the driver before using his service, otherwise you may pay more than expected.
Motorbikes can be rented easily in many places. Prices start at around 125 baht/day for newer models of 100-125 cc with semi-automatic (foot shift, automatic clutch) and direct shift, 150 baht/day for fully automatic scooters; it is also easy to find larger displacement models, although prices reflect the risks: up to around 2,500 baht/day for the latest models of large displacement sports bikes, such as the Honda CBR1000RR. In all cases, lower prices apply if you pay for more than a week in advance; in some cases, long-distance travel may be prohibited. Motorbike rentals do not include insurance, and motorbike accidents and theft are common.
In many places you will be hired out without a driving licence, but by law you must have a valid Thai or international driving licence. Often you will be asked for a deposit; sometimes you will be asked for a photocopy of your passport or even the passport itself (don’t do this, but rather negotiate to leave a few baht). Helmets are usually included, but these are usually very basic models with very thin chin straps. If you intend to travel by motorbike and have a good quality helmet at home, bring it along. If you have a helmet with a chin strap (as is the case with many cheap rental helmets), slide the chin strap up and fasten the bare strap directly under the jaw, as this is much safer.
Insurance is not usually included (or even available). So try to make sure in advance that the insurance you leave at home covers you; otherwise, contact a local insurance broker in Thailand. If you rent a vehicle without insurance and it is damaged or stolen (take photos of the bike when you rent it!), you will end up paying the full cost of repair or replacement. In addition, some travel insurance policies only provide medical cover in the event of an accident if you have a motorbike licence in your home country.
According to the WHO Global Road Safety Situation Report 2013, Thailand recorded 38.1 road deaths per 100,000 population in 2010. This is the second highest number of fatalities worldwide. 74 percent of these fatalities involved “two- or three-wheeled motorised vehicles”. Motorcyclists (including their passengers) are required to wear safety helmets and keep their headlights on at all times. Enforcement of this rule varies widely, but in tourist areas random checks of helmets and/or permits are commonplace. Although the fines are small (usually 400 baht), the inconvenience can be considerable as the offender’s vehicle and/or licence are impounded until the fine is paid and the queue at the police station can be long.
At some border crossings (but not all) the passage of motorbikes is allowed. In these cases, documents must be presented, including proof of ownership (with the possible exception of day trips to Payathonzu, Myanmar, via the Three Pagodas Pass).
Driving your own car in Thailand is not for the faint-hearted, and many rental companies can provide drivers at a very reasonable price. Uninsured prices for a private car start at around 800 baht/day for small cars and from 600 baht/day for open jeeps. Cars with insurance start at just under 1,000 baht/day and go down to about 5,600 baht/week or 18,000 baht/month.
Driving is (usually, but not always!) on the left side of the road. At large petrol stations, the price of fuel is 37 to 45 baht/litre. Small roadside vendors who hand-pump into barrels and/or bottle charge a few baht extra.
Cars can be rented easily in many places. It is worth paying a little more than the bare minimum to use one of the international excesses (e.g. Avis, Budget and Hertz) to minimise the risk of hassle and to ensure that the insurance included is really worth something.
More reputable agencies require the presentation of valid licences. Foreigners who do not have a Thai driving licence must have a valid international driving licence. Even if you manage to rent a car without an international driving licence, without it your insurance will be invalid and you will be asked to pay in case of an accident.
A common rental scam is for the landlord to take a deposit and then refuse to return it in full, claiming that the customer is responsible for any previous damage; the tourist police (call 1155) may be able to help. Another common scam is for the rental company to hire someone to follow the rented vehicle and then ‘steal’ it with a spare set of keys. Always report a theft: a “stolen” vehicle may mysteriously reappear as soon as the police get involved.
One of the many names of the Thai people is jao naam, the lords of the water, and from Bangkok to the trawlers of Phuket, boats remain an essential means of transport in many parts of the country.
Perhaps the best known Thai boat is the longtail boat (reua hang yao), a long, slender wooden boat with the propeller at the end of a long “tail” sticking out of the boat. This makes them extremely manoeuvrable, even in shallow water, but they are a bit too flimsy for long trips and you will get wet if the boat is a bit rough. Longtails are usually taxis that can be chartered, though prices vary widely. It costs between 300 and 400 baht for a few hours hire, or up to 1,500 baht for a whole day. In some places, such as Krabi, longtails follow fixed routes and charge fixed prices per passenger.
Modern, air-conditioned speedboats, sometimes ferries (departing every 30 minutes), also connect Surat Thani with popular islands like Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan. However, true long-distance connections (e.g. from Bangkok to another major city) no longer exist, as buses, planes and even trains are faster. Security is rudimentary and ferries and speedboats operate occasionally. It is therefore necessary to avoid crowded boats in bad weather and seek out the nearest life jackets on board.