Travel in Thailand Getting Around Thailand

Travel by bus

One of the great things about getting around Thailand is that no matter what form of transport you choose, it’s never expensive. Imagine traveling 600+ kilometres in an air-conditioned bus all the way to the border with Laos for 500 baht = about $US 17. Or taking a taxi 150 km from Bangkok to Pattaya for just 1,200 baht = about $US 40. Amazing value for money!

The most popular form of intercity transport in Thailand is bus and there are many different types of buses in Thailand so you need to think carefully as to which service to use. The Government run BKS buses is arguably the best run bus service.

There are several different classes of bus from the ordinary non air-conditioned buses through to the big VIP buses. The difference in cost between the best and worst class of bus is significant in terms of the cost, sometimes as much as ten times difference.

The ordinary buses are orange and unless it is raining, or in the middle of the cool season, the bus will drive along with all of the windows open – so you get a nice breeze running through. These buses stop pretty much anywhere and pick up anyone who waves down the bus. Further, if one wants to get out of the bus mid route, the driver will stop the bus at your request – great service! However, these buses, easily recognisable because they are bright orange, can be very slow and unless you are down to your last few pennies, I wouldn’t recommend travelling on them as they are really slow! Further, the seats are much smaller and there are no seat allocations so you may have to stand – but getting to the bus station early usually prevents that from happening.

There are a few local routes in the provinces where air-conditioned buses routes just don’t exist so if you get off the beaten track you might find yourself on such a bus! But it is not that bad and there are a few benefits. People using this type of bus are often poorer folks who have never met a Westerner and they will be delighted to try and chat with you so you have a great opportunity to meet and have conversations with the nicest Thai people on these buses. When these buses stop, vendors often jump on board selling all sorts of food, drinks, clothes etc. It’s absolutely marvellous to be able to buy some grilled chicken, sticky rice and even from time to time, if you are really lucky, some som tum, all without having to get off the bus. These vendors sell food in the same manner on the trains too. Ahhh, the pleasures of overland travel in Thailand – just great!

The next class of bus up from the orange non air-conditioned bus is the standard air-conditioned bus. All of the air-conditioned classes of bus are blue in colour. The standard air-conditioned buses are a little nicer than the orange buses, obviously air-con but they tend to be a little older and can be run down. While they may pick up people on route, it is not common to have people standing on air-con buses i.e. they sell tickets with allocated seat numbers and once the bus is full, that’s it, no more tickets. But, if in mid route, someone waves down the bus, they may be allowed on board but they will have to stand until another passenger gets off and a seat becomes available. Although prices vary, the fares on the standard air-con bus are around 75% more than a non air-conditioned bus. As with the other classes of air-conditioned bus, there will usually be a television on board. The entertainment is usually in Thai or if on the off chance it is a Western movie, it will probably be dubbed in Thai. Even though the bus may be running to a far flung destination several hours away, and running at night, the bus company are convinced that you do not want to sleep and the volume is at maximum – just like in Thai cinemas! Some buses have elaborate sound systems with many speakers so escaping the sound may not be an option!

Better than the standard air-con buses is the first class air-con bus. These are usually be newer and the seats are nicer, finished with cloth instead of vinyl as is usually found on the standard air-con bus. There will also be less seats on board, meaning more leg room. You will be given a drink and something sweet or savoury to eat soon after the bus has departed – more often than not a soft drink and a Thai style cake. If it’s a long journey you will be given another drink later on. And not too long before you reach your destination you will be given one of those chemically smelling wet cloths, similar to what you get on planes not long before landing. There will be a toilet on board but there is a chance it’s out of order. First class air-con buses cost around 20 – 25% more than the standard air-con bus and for lengthy journeys, the extra cost is well worth it, especially if you’re tall and appreciate the extra legroom.

The VIP bus is the highest class of bus and can be a very pleasant way to travel. VIP buses seem to vary a little and while some of them are remarkably similar to the first class air-con bus mentioned earlier, others are quite luxurious. The genuine VIP bus will have a limited number of seats and every seat has a truckload of leg room – pro basketball players wouldn’t complain. VIP buses can be quite dear comparative to the other bus services, with the fare from Bangkok to Chiang Mai over 800+ baht, as an example, but if you think of that in Western currency, it is peanuts.

It should be noted that intercity bus crashes are common in Thailand and you often see the chilling remains of what was once a bus on the side of the road. Not only is the standard of driving very poor, but many of the truck and bus drivers take speed to keep themselves awake and allow them to drive for long periods – and hence make more money. Some try to drive like Michael Schumacher after he’s spent the afternoon in a beer garden! I will never forget the first time I took an intercity bus in Thailand, a lengthy journey from Bangkok to Nongkhai. The driver was driving like an absolute maniac – overtaking on hills and around corners. I really thought I was going to die so I drained all of my stowed away alcohol really fast which luckily put me to sleep. I woke up not at the gates of hell but at the bus station at Nongkhai which in retrospect, was something of a miracle.

What I love about land based domestic travel in Thailand is that you are treated well and the service is generally very good. In many Western countries, it seems to me that everything is so stiff – the train leaves at this time and gets to the destination at this time – if you want to stop for a leak, forget it. If the bus passes right past your house and you would like it to stop there, forget it. In Thailand, it’s the complete opposite. If all of the tickets for the bus have been sold and everyone is board, the bus will leave – bureaucracy goes out the window as the driver takes charge of the situation – great stuff! And if you want to get off somewhere along the way, you can. It is all very sensible!

But there are times when perhaps the notion of good service is taken a little bit far. I never fail to chuckle when on the Pattaya to Bangkok bus trip, the driver is more than happy to stop the bus by one of the median barriers in the middle of the motorway so that people can get off. Not only is it tricky to stop there and then re-enter the fast flowing traffic, but the passengers who jumped off then have to battle their way over a few lanes of traffic barreling along at high speed before they reach the side of the road. This is Thailand and you have to expect the unexpected but I still laugh when I see this happen.

At bus stations in Thailand, there are various touts around trying to get you to buy a ticket for your journey. Their English will usually be good enough to ask you where you’re going and then direct you or show you to the ticket counter. What is the deal with them? Well, not only is the Government bus company represented but there are also various private competing bus companies competing for the travelers’ baht. If you can’t read the signs in Thai at bus stations and on the side of the buses, you wouldn’t know it for all of the buses are the same colour but on some routes, there are several competing companies. These touts are trying to get you to buy a ticket from their company. Don’t worry about commissions or anything as the ticket price is the same whether you were taken to the counter by them or not. The private companies operating out of the major Bangkok and provincial bus stations are usually fine but the Government run buses still have the best reputation – they are a little dearer so you get what you pay for.

In addition to the Government run buses and the private companies offering similar services, there are the “Khao Sarn Road buses” that go to and from Khao Sarn Road, the backpacker haven of Bangkok. These really are a bit of a lottery, sometimes good and sometimes not so good. When booking one of these buses, the first thing you need to ascertain is whether it is a full sized bus or a minibus. Yep, sometimes they will sell you a “bus ticket” but when the bus arrives, it is in fact a small cramped Japanese minivan. And they will shove you in like sardines and drive you to the far flung corners of the country with your knees up around your ears and that stinky smelly backpacker’s hairy armpits no more than three inches from your mouth! Sounds like a nightmare doesn’t it? The great thing about these buses however is that if you are staying in the Khao Sarn Road area, you do not need to go hunting for the bus station which can be a little tricky, costly and time consuming. Funnily enough, when going the other way from the provinces to Bangkok, these buses do not always go to Khao Sarn Road and will sometimes drop you off somewhere else! The price of the ticket varies from travel agent to travel agent so you may find that the person sitting next to you with those damned armpits paid a different amount to what you did – but with the smell coming from those armpits, you won’t give the price difference much thought at all.

There are three main bus stations in Bangkok – MoChit which is huge and more like an airport than a bus station, Ekamai which is located half way down Sukhumvit Road, conveniently next to the Ekamai train station, and the Southern Bus Station located west of the Chao Praya River. You need to ascertain where you want to go and then make your way to the right bus station. Generally speaking, buses to the North and Northeast which includes places like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Ayuthaya, Sukhothai, Korat, Khon Kaen etc leave from MoChit. Buses going east of Bangkok to places like Pattaya, Chonburi and Chantaburi leave from the Ekamai station. Buses going anywhere south and a few places not far from Bangkok such as Kanchanaburi leave from the southern bus terminal. There are a few exceptions though so you need to check!

One curious thing that was happening in early 2000, gosh that is many years ago now isn’t it, was police approaching foreigners at the Ekamai Bus Station in Bangkok. They would ask the foreigner if they could check the foreigner’s luggage and do a reasonably thorough check including a pat down of the body and checking every compartment of the person’s wallet. They appeared to be checking for drugs. I’m no legal expert but I wonder if this is actually legal or not and also wonder what would happen if you said, no, I do not give you permission to search me. Still, it seems innocuous enough. If it was me, I’d let them search me as I never have anything to hide. Fortunately they seemed to give up on this some time ago.

Travel by boat

If you find yourself venturing to any of Thailand’s islands you may find yourself on a boat. Good luck. Boat travel in Thailand is cheap, but then it should be, because many of the boats are rickety old things, often driven by some young punk that you just know doesn’t have a clue about the rules of the sea, and to say nothing of a terrible shortage of life jackets and other safety features. No means of travel makes me so nervous in Thailand as boat travel.

On the eastern seaboard the boats that make their way across to the Ko Samet and Ko Chang are older vehicles and they tend to move at a slow pace. Even with that in mind they often a lean to one side, or are so old and worn out that you find yourself willing the old girl to reach her destination as quickly as possible. I also always find myself eyeballing the life jackets.

There are various boats in operation in the south, connecting the many islands down that way. In recent years there have been a number of high profile accidents involving drunk boats man, over-crowded vessels, boats at sea in inclement conditions and a shortage of life jackets.

Sometimes using a boat in Thailand is unavoidable but frankly, I avoid them like the plague.

Travel by air

Flights to Thailand from international destinations are cheaper now with more carriers flying routes into Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and Don Meuang Airport, the old international airport, the hub for budget airlines like Air Asia.

Thai Airways is the main domestic airline and airfares for flights within Thailand are fairly reasonably priced, the schedules are good with lots of flights to the most popular destinations and the prices are fixed – it doesn’t matter when you buy the ticket, 3 months in advance or 3 hours before the flight leaves, the price will be the same. Further, the planes are generally in good condition and you do not get anything like the horror stories you hear of some neighbouring countries where you share the cabin with farmer Joe and half the cattle from his farm! Thai Airways flies to most parts of the country, but not quite all.

The notable exception of where Thai does not fly is the tropical paradise of Ko Samui. There is only one airline which flies between Ko Samui and Bangkok and that is Bangkok Airways who I believe own the airport at Samui. The fare to fly from Bangkok to Ko Samui on Bangkok Airways is more expensive than the fare on Thai to fly from Bangkok to Phuket, something which many people question, with some feeling that Bangkok Airways really stings you when you fly between Bangkok and Ko Samui. Bangkok Airways also flies to some neighbouring countries as well as operating domestic flights within Thailand, but it is the route to Ko Samui for which they are most famous. Bangkok Airways has tried to reposition themselves and now markets themselves as Asia’s boutique carrier.

Thai Airways introduced a budget carrier called Nok Air which flies some of the more popular routes at fares a little more than half the price of the equivalent fare on Thai. The planes are ex Thai Airways fleet and the flights are generally on time. Nok Airways is my preferred budget airline in Thailand for this very reason.

Air Asia is the biggest budget airline in the region and is run out of Malaysia. I personally have found their planes to be a little old, and they’re often late, usually an hour or two. I have not had good experiences with Air Asia and I will not fly them again if it can be helped. That said, if you book a good period in advance before flying then you can save a lot of money with this particular airline.

Finally of the budget carriers operating in Thailand is One Two Go. I have never used them so cannot really comment on them, but a workmate swears by them.

Many of the popular places in Thailand such as the islands in the south and Chiang Mai in the north are quite a distance from Bangkok so travelling by air does make sense if you want to save time.

Look closely and the two cloud covered islands in the pic are
Ko Samui on the left and Ko Phangnan on the right, seen from 30,000 feet.

Travel by train

The trains in Thailand are good and a very pleasant way to travel if you are not in a hurry. Generally speaking the train is slower than a bus running the comparable route. Even the deceptively names express and sprinter services often feel like they are crawling along at a snail’s pace. Sure, you can get up and walk around etc but for the most part, when I used public transport to travel intercity I preferred the buses – that’s just a personal preference.

Like trains elsewhere in the world, there are three different classes, 1st, 2nd and 3rd – funny that. Third class can be a bit rough if you are travelling a long journey. Personally, I wouldn’t want to sit in 3rd class for any journey of more than about 3 hours or so. The seats are uncomfortable and if you get a busy train such as the Bangkok to Korat, they pack the punters in like sardines. 2nd class is comfortable and 1st class is apparently very nice but truth be told, I never tried it. I do note that some of the first class prices are about the same as an airfare!

As mentioned in the section on travelling by bus, vendors get on and off the trains along the way and sell various items of food and drink, often at very reasonable prices. Also like the non air-conditioned buses the train can be a great way to meet the locals.

Travel by car

Hiring cars or even a big bike is one way to get around Thailand. The quality of the roads in Thailand is generally pretty good. Where the problems start to arise is in the quality of the driving and if you spend much time watching the way the Thais drive, I hate to say it but all of the Asian driver jokes suddenly seem to have some credence.

All of the big international car rental car companies such as Budget and Avis are represented along with a lot of smaller, private rental car companies which may offer slightly older cars, but at very reasonable prices. Many of these firms have websites and searching for Thailand car hire should be a start.

With the big firms you do have more peace of mind than the smaller firms where occasionally you hear a story about the cars being poorly maintained or having some sort of problem.

Car rental is fairly cheap in Thailand which is a little surprising given that the cost of buying a car in Thailand is much dearer than in the West.

You can hire a variety of motorbikes in Thailand and this seems to be fairly popular in most of the beaches and islands along with places in the north. The most popular bikes seem to be the little 125 cc Honda Dream which you can get for about 150 baht a day or as little as 3,000 baht per month. Whether or not you would want to do a lot of intercity riding is questionable though.

While Bangkok can be a difficult place to drive in – signs are generally in Thai only, traffic jams are legendary and it can be very difficult to orient yourself, the opposite is said of the provinces. Generally, driving in provincial Thailand is easy, the drivers are less aggressive, there is much less traffic – and the further you get from Bangkok, the less traffic and congestion you find. However, wherever you go, signs are generally in Thai only. In a few places, and Pattaya is one exception, some road signs are in Thai. Fortunately street signs are in both Thai and English nationwide, something which I have been extremely impressed with. Yes, for many years, street signs in even the most far flung corners of the country have English on them too!

Petrol is reasonably priced in Thailand, more expensive than American prices, but much cheaper than what is paid in Europe.

Many of the Thais living in Bangkok come from provincial Thailand and moved to the big smoke to pursue employment. On public holiday weekends, there is often a mass migration out to the provinces as these folks head back to see their families. A lot of the folks working in Bangkok have partners and children in the countryside that they are supporting and so they take every opportunity to go home and visit them. With this in mind, you should, and indeed often need, to buy your tickets in advance if you plan to travel over public holiday periods. This is especially true for the Songkran holiday period in April when routes can get sold out well in advance. Book early to avoid disappointment.

One point needs to be made about using taxis in Thailand, especially Bangkok. Always try and get a taxi that is driving on the roads. Taxis parked outside hotels are very reluctant to use the meter and you can bet that if they offer you a price it will be anywhere between double and several times what the fare would be if they used the meter!