Thailand - Transport
If you have never been to Thailand there are certain things that you need not feel concerned about. Accommodation is abundant, cheap and easy to book. There is never any need to worry about being able to find a place to stay. You also needn't worry about getting around.
There has been massive economic migration within Thailand and many Thais from poor regions of the country have gone to work in Bangkok or one of the well-known tourist resorts in the south. To cater for this demand a huge public/private road transportation system has developed and it is cheap to use.
King Rama V initiated the first railway system in Thailand in the late 1800's and it is still going strong today. The trains in use may not be the fastest or the most comfortable/punctual/efficient in the world, but train journeys in Thailand can be fun and tickets aren't expensive.
In 2004, shortly after I relocated permanently to Thailand, the budget airline industry took off (no pun intended). Prior to that, if you wanted to fly around the country the only option was Thai Airways and it was quite expensive. Everything changed in 2004. The two major budget carriers are Nok Air and Air Asia, but there are several smaller airlines that offer routes not provided by these big carriers.
Many Thais living in the provinces need to make trips to Bangkok and before 2004 the only way to do this for a reasonable cost was to take a bus, minivan or train. From the deep south or way up in northern Thailand this could take 12 hours. Flying reduces the time to just over an hour and air tickets offered as promotions are sometimes cheaper than bus tickets.
Mo Chit bus terminal in Bangkok
It will give some people peace of mind to book internal flights before they arrive in Thailand, but it isn't necessary. There are many travel agents who will be able to book flights for you, or you can do it yourself on-line. If you know where you want to go and have exact dates, sign up for a budget airline's membership programme and keep an eye out for promotions. You can save quite a lot of money this way.
Regarding travel within towns and cities, there is Bangkok and there is the rest of the country. Bangkok has its BTS Skytrain, subway, and tens of thousands of taxis, buses, tuk-tuks and motorbike taxis.
Provincial cities are a lot smaller. If you have some local knowledge you can use sawng-thaews, which are converted pickup trucks with rows of seats in the back.
Public Or Private?
Many types of transport in Thailand are public in the sense that anyone can use them, but they are privately run and owned. All minivans are operated by private companies, as are many buses. As such, they are not run as a public service. They are run purely for profit.
The drivers aren't simply doing a job, like they would if they were driving a bus in London. They are private businesses and each driver is trying to make the most profit. With taxis, this means inflating fares. With other types of transport where fares are fixed, this means maximising profits by making sure vehicles are always fully laden.
A typically overcrowded bus
The other problem is that to maximise profits drivers will drive at breakneck speed to increase the number of journeys they do in one day. I have been on minivans travelling at 160kmh an hour and it is frightening. Vans are frequently involved in serious accidents and many minivan passengers are killed every year.
The result is that at times you will be ripped off, you will often need to wait for long periods for other passengers to arrive before the vehicle leaves, and sometimes you will be subjected to overcrowding. On buses and minivans where there are two seats, you will sometimes be told to squeeze up so that three people can sit down. You will be sold tickets for buses that are already full. You either have to stand, or sit on a plastic seat with no back support in the aisle.
Transport in Thailand has its good points, but there are also some very negative ones.
I have already covered waiting around for a long time while the driver fills every seat in his vehicle, overcrowding and high-speed, dangerous driving. What are the other problems?
Drivers of all passenger vehicles are regulated by their local authority but, as is usually the case in Thailand, they have absolutely no interest in following the regulations.
Bangkok taxi drivers are notorious for refusing fares and for refusing to use their meters. If you flag down a taxi be prepared for several drivers to simply drive off when you tell them where you want to go, or to give you a flat fare - which will be a lot higher than the metered fare.
Tuk-tuks and motorbike taxis don't have meters, but they are also regulated and should charge passengers in accordance with the local regulations based on distance travelled. They don't and will just try to get as much money as they can. Foreign tourists will be given very high quotes.
You may be sold a bus ticket, but this doesn't guarantee a seat. If you board a bus mid-route on a popular route don't expect there to be any free seats.
Train arriving at Phattalung train station
On some train journeys, especially it seems from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, some passengers are offered spiked drinks and then robbed while they are asleep. If a Thai offers you food or drink on a train it is probably wise not to accept it.
Air travel is no fun these days and the same airport security procedures that we are all familiar with also apply to Thailand. Budget airlines have brought fares down, but they squeeze in as many seats as they can and being is such close proximity with so many inconsiderate people isn't my idea of fun.
Getting Around Bangkok
Taxis These are cheap (especially compared to somewhere like London) and comfortable as they are air-conditioned. Make sure you get a metered taxi and that the driver uses the meter. If he refuses to, or says his meter isn't working, get another taxi.
A Bangkok metered taxi, but most Bangkok taxi drivers refuse to use their meters
By not using the meter he is trying to charge you more than the fare should be. One disadvantage with taxis is getting caught in the notorious Bangkok traffic jams. If the driver can get to your destination using one of the toll ways he will normally ask for your permission first. The toll ways will be a lot quicker but you will have to pay the toll fees.
Be suspicious about certain things the driver may tell you. One time when I was in Bangkok I asked a taxi driver to take me to Patpong. He asked me if I wanted to eat and I said no, just take me to Patpong. He said something about not being able to get food in Patpong (absolute rubbish) and if I wanted to eat he knew a good restaurant.
I wasn't paying much attention to any of this. He then started driving away from where I wanted to go but I didn't say anything as I thought he might know of some roadworks or a one-way system or something. Five minutes later he pulled up outside a restaurant where the restaurant owner opened the taxi door and greeted me. I shut the door again and told him to take me where I wanted to go.
This type of thing is common in Thailand. In addition to his fare, the driver will always be thinking about somewhere else he can take you in order to collect his commission.
A speeding Bangkok taxi
Bangkok taxi drivers always drive at breakneck speed. Some taxis have no seatbelts in the back and on more than one occasion I have had to tell the guy to slow down.
During 2012 I made quite a few trips to Bangkok because my daughter needed to see a doctor there. After hailing a vacant taxi, nine times out of ten the driver refused to take us where we wanted to go. It was infuriating.
The driver would always lie and make up an excuse that he was on his way home and our destination was in the wrong direction. I might have believed this once or twice, but not every time.
It then came to light that lots of people were having the same problem and that some drivers would only take tourists, who they could overcharge. In some taxis there is a copy of some kind of passenger charter and one of the conditions is that a driver cannot refuse a legitimate fare.
To fix the problem it was announced that drivers would start being fined Bt1,000 for refusing fares and then a hotline number was opened in order to report drivers. Unfortunately, I can't remember the number.
Anyway, when I returned to the capital again in early 2013 I didn't have one problem with drivers refusing to take me. Perhaps the problem has been fixed now?
A Bangkok tuk-tuk
Tuk-tuks No trip to Thailand would be complete without a ride in a tuk-tuk. However, tuk-tuk rides come with some major warnings.
Tuk-tuks (so called because the noise their small engines make) provide an invaluable service to the local community elsewhere in Thailand but in Bangkok most of the tuk-tuk drivers are scoundrels.
The first thing you must do is agree a price. You shouldn't really pay more than Bt50 for a ride. If the fare is genuinely more than this the ride is too long to be comfortable taken in a tuk-tuk and you should consider alternative transport.
If you don't agree a price beforehand expect the driver to charge you a ridiculous amount when you reach your destination, such as Bt300. This may not seem a lot if you've just flown in from London but when you consider tuk-tuk rides elsewhere cost Bt10 or Bt20 that should tell you something isn't right. A tuk-tuk should never exceed Bt200.
When riding in a tuk-tuk you are totally exposed to the elements, the searing heat and humidity of Bangkok and the air heavy with exhaust fumes. The driver will probably drive at a hair-raising pace and, like Reliant Robins, some of these vehicles only have 3 wheels so they can tip over. My suggestion would be for first time visitors to take a short Bt50 ride for the experience but not to regard tuk-tuks as a regular transport option. The taxis are far more comfortable and cheaper.
The other warning about tuk-tuk drivers is that some drivers will try to involve you in scams. They may attempt to do this by offering you a ride for Bt10. Of course, this offer comes with a catch. He will take you to various shops where you will be pressured to buy things, maybe gems.
The shop owners may use high-pressure sales techniques that make you feel very uncomfortable not buying anything. If you buy something you will be grossly overcharged and the tuk-tuk driver will receive a commission which is why he conned you in the first place. Be very careful of tuk-tuk drivers in Bangkok.
The BTS Bangkok Skytrain
The BTS Sky Train This was a very welcome addition to Bangkok's transport infrastructure.
It is fast as it isn't impeded by Bangkok's notorious 24 hour traffic jams, and the air-conditioned carriages are comfortable. The platforms are quite high above the streets and some stations do not have escalators so it can be a bit of a climb up the steps.
There are just two lines so it is not possible to get to certain areas of Bangkok but the network is gradually being extended. If you are in town for a few days it works out cheaper to buy a one or three day pass if you plan on travelling around quite a lot.
Bangkok Subway System The new Bangkok subway system only opened in April 2004. I have used it once while returning to my hotel from Jatujak market. There was a lot of walking involved transferring to the BTS. It was hard work travelling with a young child in a buggy, and the cost for two adults was more expensive than getting a taxi back which would have been door-to-door with no walking.
Entrance to Sukhumvit station on the new Bangkok subway system
The system isn't very extensive and the design looked just like the MRT in Singapore.
According to newspaper reports at the time it opened, it was beneficial to a lot of commuters in cutting down their journey times. Any alternative to travelling on Bangkok's heavily congested roads has to be a good thing.
When it opened there were 18 stations on the line and fares ranged from Bt12 to Bt31 after an initial promotion period where all fares cost only Bt10.
The photo is of the subway entrance at Sukhumvit station.
Bangkok bus in a Bangkok traffic jam
Buses Popular with the locals as they are very cheap - typically only Bt4 or Bt5. When you arrive in a strange town though, working out bus routes can be confusing. I believe a bus map is available but I'm not sure where from and I haven't used it. From what I have observed, the buses get crowded and they are not air-conditioned. If you are on a tight budget, or just seeking something more adventurous, the local bus could be the option for you.
I have used buses but it helps if you can speak and read Thai. In the world of bus transport nothing is in English. The written destinations on the buses are all in Thai and it is very unlikely that the person collecting the fares will speak or understand any English.
Airport bus Since I first wrote this, the new Bangkok airport has opened. When you arrive in Bangkok at the airport, you need to get to your hotel. The easiest option is to take a taxi, but buses are cheaper.
There used to be buses just behind the taxi stand at Don Meuang going to different destination in Bangkok. At the new airport, the buses are located a little further outside the airport. They are cheaper but if you are new to Thailand and don't have any language skills it may be better to take a taxi.
Inside a Bangkok river taxi
Boat Bangkok has an extensive canal system running off the Chao Phraya river. The canals are known as klongs in Thai. It can be a very cheap way of seeing some interesting parts of the city. Cruising along watching locals bathing, washing clothes and plates in the murky water gives you another perspective of life in Bangkok.
This method of transport is good for general sightseeing, but for certain routes it is also a viable transport option. The fares generally should be very cheap, just a few Baht, but my first ever experience of being ripped off in Thailand involved a boat ride on the canals. Make sure that you get on public boats and that you know the exact fare.
Some of the rides are not gentle affairs on Bangkok's waterways, the drivers hare along at a frightening rate of knots. This results in large amounts of water being directed into the boat. To keep passengers dry nylon curtains are raised on either side of the boat but occasionally the water still finds a way through.
Getting Around Town Outside Of Bangkok
Local transport options vary slightly depending on where you are but you will soon find out what is available. All Thai provincial towns are significantly smaller than Bangkok and do not have major bus and train routes within town.
Motorcycle Taxis Motorcycle taxis are popular and abundant in most places. A typical fare is about Bt20, but of course Thais will always inflate the fare for a foreign passenger. This mode of transport is quick and cheap but there are risks attached. An advantage over other types of transport is that you are the only passenger, therefore, you will be taken directly to where you want to go to.
They are quick but Thai driving techniques can be unsettling and motorcycle accidents are part of everyday life in Thailand. It is the intention of most drivers not to stop once they get going. They pull straight out at junctions, never giving way. They turn left at red traffic lights as if the traffic light didn't exist.
If constipation is ever a problem in Thailand a quick motorcycle taxi ride will normally do the trick. To distinguish motorcycle taxis from the millions of other motorcycles on the road the drivers always wear a coloured vest with a number.
Tuk-tuks Whereas in Bangkok these are mainly a tourist ripoff, in the provinces they provide a real service getting people around on routes where alternative transport doesn't exist.
Nonetheless, in the provinces you still get frequent problems with greedy drivers. The appearance of a farang signals to most Thai tuk-tuk drivers that the fare can be increased by two, three, four or five times.
I tend to use them only when I really need to. Before you travel, ask local Thais what the fare should be and compare this with what the driver tells you. If he's trying to rip you off, tell him no and ask another driver.
Avoid catching tuk-tuks in busy tourist areas, especially if they are waiting outside hotels. They are simply waiting for foreigners because they know they can charge a higher rate.
If you are near a hotel or tourist area, walk a short distance to somewhere that isn't crawling with tourists and hail a tuk-tuk that is passing by.
In places like Phuket there are so many foreigners that it is impossible to follow this advice. The tuk-tuk drivers in places like this operate a cartel (sometimes referred to as a mafia) and it is impossible to avoid being ripped off. I think the minimum tuk-tuk fare in Phuket is Bt300, which is absolutely ridiculous. If you can, take a public bus or sawng-thaew.
Sawng-thaews are a popular form of local transport in Thailand
Sawng-Thaews Sawng-thaew means 'two rows'. Sawng-thaews are pickup trucks with a couple of bench seats in the back (two rows) - some also have a third bench that runs down the middle. In most cases they ply fixed routes. They are very cheap, typically Bt10, and the price is fixed. On some long routes there may be tiered pricing for varying distances travelled. For example, if you get off half way it is Bt10, but if you go all the way it is Bt20.
Normally a little local knowledge is required to use sawng-thaews in order to know where they are going. It helps to be able to speak some Thai as generally the drivers don't speak any English. It also helps to be able to read Thai because the destinations are written on the side in Thai.
Unlike tuk-tuks it isn't necessary to speak with the driver before you set off. They operate on fixed routes and can be treated the same as buses. There is a bell push in the back used to alert the driver to stop when you want to get off.
They operate at two speeds. Drivers always want a full quota of passengers to increase their profits, and they will kerb-crawl and wait at certain places for ages trying to get more passengers. It can be infuriating if you are already on board to be kept waiting like this.
Once he has enough passengers, he will drive like a maniac. There is a roof on the back but it is only to give some protection from the elements. It's not a roll cage. If a driver manages to flip his truck, as sometimes they do, the passengers in the back won't stand a chance.
I've noticed that expats living in certain parts of Thailand, such as Pattaya, refer to sawng-thaews as 'Baht buses'. These places seem to have their own version of Thaiglish, as spoken by Thai bargirls and foreigners who live in tourist resorts.
I've never actually heard this term in real life; just seen it on a few forums. The vast majority of Thais won't know what you are talking about if you say 'Baht bus'. It's a really stupid description. What form of transport in Thailand do you not pay for in Baht?
Getting Around The Country
No matter where you are there will be some means of transport, sometimes a variety of options, to get to where you want to go.
Plane Thai Airways has always had an extensive domestic route network and beginning in 2004 a lot of budget airlines opened for business in Thailand.
The budget operators are typical of budget operators elsewhere. If you can book in advance, you get better deals than by booking at short notice. Prices are low but service is basic.
Since the advent of budget airlines (and some competition), Thai Airlines also have good deals now so don't forget about them. Their service is still very good.
When travelling by plane within Thailand, most (but not all) flights go through Bangkok and you need to change. This isn't the case on some very popular routes where you can fly direct, thus bypassing Bangkok. For example, Nok Air have a direct service between Hat Yai and Chiang Mai.
International flights arrive at the new airport. The old airport at Don Meuang is just used for domestic flights.
Train If time is not a problem train travel may appeal to you. It can be a good way of seeing the country or you may decide to take an overnight trip and get some sleep on the way. It is generally the slowest way to travel. My experience of train travel in Thailand is minimal - just a few journeys in third class compartments in the south of the country.
The train is slow, but very cheap.
Public Bus Most towns of any size have a bus station - Bor Kor Sor (Borisut Kon Song which translates to Transport Company). Basic buses are normally coloured orange and have no air-conditioning but they have fans and when travelling along they aren't too hot. Some have huge sound systems on board and turn into disco buses blaring out Thai pop tunes. It can be a fun, almost surreal experience. On certain routes the buses get packed especially at times when local kids are going to or leaving school. They are cheap.
The blue buses are a step up in quality and normally air-conditioned. For long journeys at night, blankets and food are sometimes provided. Thais seem to like travelling at night. They also seem to have an amazing ability to be able to sleep anywhere, in any position. I've done a few long overnight bus trips but I never sleep well and feel rough the following day.
Private Bus On popular routes, for example between Bangkok and Phuket, a number of private companies operate bus routes. The large, modern coaches can be quite luxurious and make getting a decent night's sleep a real possibility. Some have as few as 24 seats so the seats are large with lots of legroom. Of course, they are more expensive than public buses but you pays your money and you takes your choice.
Hat Yai minivan station
Minivans I hate these things, but sometimes they are the only transport option. They're run by private companies so everything is based on maximising profit.
The drivers won't leave until every seat is taken, and on some routes (for example, between Hat Yai and Songkhla) they regularly take on more passengers than there are seats. In addition to transporting passengers, many will act as couriers. I've been on minivans where the driver suddenly takes off on a long excursion to deliver a package.
The drivers drive at ridiculous speeds with no concern for their passengers on board. Not only have I experienced this as a minivan passenger, but when I've hired cars I've found minivans to be among the most obnoxious of Thai road users.
I avoid them whenever I can but sometimes I am forced to use them.
Hiring Cars And Motorbikes
Driving standards are appalling in Thailand and you need to familiarise yourself with Thai driving 'techniques' first before you start driving yourself. At least then you will know the kind of things to expect from crazy Thai drivers.
If hiring a vehicle check the contract very carefully before you drive off. I've hired cars and the person who hired out the car didn't even bother asking to see any kind of proof that I had a licence or even that I could drive a car. They just gave me the keys straight away. However, in the event of an accident, if you haven't got the right kind of license or if there is another paperwork problem you are then in big trouble.
The contract may say that they can charge you for all damage (regardless of whose fault the accident was), and also that they can make you liable for lost business for each day the vehicle is off the road while it is being repaired at your expense. The big international car rental companies are a lot safer in this respect even if their rates are a bit higher.
This picture was drawn by one of my students when I used to teach English in Thailand.
Cars are the biggest status symbols in Thailand
I have spoken to students who have studied in the West and they are shocked that senior doctors and professors in Western countries actually take public transport to get to work. This would never happen in Thailand.
Thais are expected to live up to their social status and 'big' people must always have their own expensive cars. Public transport is just there for poor people.
Thais are extremely image and status conscious. In Thailand the ultimate status symbol is a car, and owning a car or pickup truck is the number one goal in life for many Thais. Most Thais who don't own a car have a motorbike, and there is similar status attached to certain kinds of motorbike.
Western societies have been through this phase already. In the West a lot of people have given up (or reduced) their car usage to return to more environmentally-friendly forms of transport. They walk, ride bicycles or use public transport.
Thai society has a very long way to go yet before it reaches that stage. The most important thing for Thais is that their perceived status is seen as being high, and that means driving a car - or at least riding a motorbike.
If a journey is short, or parking is a problem, it makes a lot of sense just to hop on a bus or a train. A Thai will not consider this option if he/she has a car. The Thai value system overrides common sense.
These attitudes have a negative impact on those people who do decide to take public transport, even if they can afford to have a private vehicle. In the Thai mind, a person using public transport does so because he/she cannot afford their own vehicle. This means their status is low, and thus they aren't deserving of any respect.
I speak from many years' experience of regularly taking tuk-tuks, sawng-thaews, buses, and minivans. Passenger are often treated like cattle.
Tuk-tuk drivers will try to rip you off; upon boarding a sawng-thaew the driver will keep you waiting for ages until he gets more people on board; minivan drivers seriously overload their vans and drive way too fast; and on some buses you will be ordered where to sit as if you have no rights of your own.
Most Thai users of public transport tend to be poor and thus have a low social status. If, as a foreigner, you join them then your perceived status is the same.
When using public transport, don't expect any respect or much in the way of service. This starts with your first contact. Even when buying bus tickets, there is an air of surliness and disrespect, along with impolite language.
The bottom line is that in Thailand anyone deserving of respect will own a car, and therefore those people won't ever use public transport.
Thailand for Tourists
Living In Thailand
Thailand is an incredibly photogenic country, both for its landscapes and its people. Regardless of whether you enjoy large Asian cities, beaches and islands, or rice fields and mountains, Thailand has something for you and it is a dream destination for photographers.
One of the great things about visiting Thailand is that hotels are plentiful and a lot cheaper than in most other countries. Each link on the right will take you to the relevant page on the Agoda website where you can see photos, read reviews, and book on-line. I tend to use Agoda to book all of my own hotels in Thailand and the Southeast Asia region. I generally find Agoda hotel rates to be the lowest and I have received good customer service, therefore I am happy to recommend the company to other people.
Booking.com used to be more expensive than Agoda, but when I have checked hotel prices recently I have found their rates to be quite competitive. Unlike Agoda, you don't need to pay at the time of booking with Booking.com - you can simply pay at the hotel when you check in. Also, Booking.com show you total prices whereas Agoda show you a price and then add on 17% for tax and service charge.
If you wish to compare prices between different on-line travel agents (OTAs) for a specific hotel, you can use a company such as HotelsCombined.
Images of Thailand