Thailand is a large country, and if sitting in a bus for 11 hours is not your idea of a fun time, you may well want to consider domestic flights. Never terribly expensive to begin with (at least by Western standards), the deregulation of the industry has brought in a crop of new operators: with a little research, it's possible to fly pretty much anywhere in the country for less than 2,000 baht. Various taxes and (often hefty) surcharges are invariably added to the "advertised" prices.
For the benefit of passengers arriving on international flights who intend to fly to another destination using a budget airline, there is a free shuttle bus which connects Bangkok Suvarnabhumi Airport with the budget terminal at Don Mueang Airport. The bus departs from the 2nd Floor, Gate 3 and runs hourly in both directions starting at 05.00 with the last bus departing from both terminals at midnight. As you exit Gate 3, turn right. The bus has an orange colour scheme and is the only one which stops at that location so you won't have any trouble finding it.
From Don Mueang Airport, the bus departs from the 1st floor. You have to be a little careful here and make sure you get on the correct bus which will have a sign on the dashboard saying "Suvarnabhumi Airport" on it. The shuttle bus doesn't have a conductor, so if you get on another bus with the same colour scheme, but there's a conductor on it issuing tickets, you're on the wrong bus!
During off-peak hours, the journey takes approximately 40 minutes, but add another 30 minutes to that if you're going to be travelling during the rush hour. It's a pleasant trip though and the vehicle is fully air-conditioned.
The driver will want to see the ticket for your onward flight, so keep that handy when boarding.
Asian low cost carrier AirAsia has coverage of international and domestic routes in Thailand and offers discounted tickets if booked well in advance; however, prices rise steadily as planes fill up. It's sometimes even cheaper than bus or train, if booked at least a week or two in advance. They fly A320s from Bangkok to a number of places domestically, as well as cities across Southeast Asia and China. ]. On-line booking is straightforward and can be done even using the mobile phone, but must be done at least twenty-four hours in advance; ticket sales at the check-in desk close one hour before the departure time.
Bangkok Airways promotes itself as "Asia's Boutique Airline", and has a near monopoly on flights to its own airports at Ko Samui (now shared with Thai Airways), Sukhothai and Trat. More expensive and the posh option; however, their Discovery Airpass with fixed per segment rates can be good value, especially if used to fly to Siem Reap, (Cambodia) or Luang Prabang, (Laos). Note that the Discovery Airpass can now only be purchased from abroad.
Nok Air took to the skies in 2004 sporting graphic paints scheme with a bird's beak painted on the nose. 39% owned by Thai Airways, they compete with Air Asia on price and, with a very comprehensive domestic network, are a good choice overall. In 2014 they became the number one domestic carrier in terms of passengers carried and will commence a new regional airline NokScoot with joint venture partner Singapore Airlines.
Orient Thai, previously One-Two-Go, is easily the dodgiest of Thailand's main carriers, flying a ragtag bunch of ancient planes with a poor safety record, including a crash in Phuket in 2007 that killed 90 people. The fleet has been grounded on and off, but as of late-2010 they're flying again. Unlike most LCCs, their ticket prices don't change much, meaning they're often the cheapest option for last-minute flights, if you are not afraid. If you're tall (above 6 feet), get an exit row seat unless you want to ride the whole flight with your knees resting against the seat in front.
Thai Airways is a full service airline, but usually more expensive than the alternatives (look for their promotions, though). Travel agents often sell only Thai Airways or Bangkok Airways tickets; you can also book on-line. Thai Airways is a member of Star Alliance; all domestic flights, except some promotional fares, give at least 500 Star Alliance miles, which may (partially) compensate the price difference.
Thai Smile is Thai Airway's answer to the threat to its business posed by the various budget airlines which have mushroomed in Thailand - a premium budget airline, if that is not an oxymoron. Although fares can hardly be considered to be 'budget orientated', they are a little bit cheaper than the parent company and worth considering since they fly from the main international terminal at Suvarnabhumi Airport. In September 2014 Thai Smile moved a number of its flights to Don Mueang Airport.
Jet Asia Airways is a Thai airline based out of Suvarnabhumi International Airport in Bangkok, Thailand. The fleet is composed exclusively of Boeing 767 aircraft focusing on the Asian charter market.
State Railway of Thailand (SRT) has a 4,000km network covering most of Thailand, from Chiang Mai in the north all the way to (and beyond) the Malaysian border in the south. Compared to buses, most trains are relatively slow and prone to delays, but give different travel feeling and a bit more freedom on the move. You can pick up fruits, snacks and cooked food from hawkers at most stations.
Point-to-point fares depend on the type (speed) of the train and the class of the carriage. There are three main classes:
- First class (chan neung) 2-berth sleeping compartments with individually regulated air conditioning are available on some trains, but prices are sometimes matched by budget airfares. Prices are at about ~$50 for a overnight trip (BKK-Chiang Mai or Suratthani), there are 2 berth compartments and some routes feature single-berth compartment in an ex-japanese railcar (these compartments are usually booked long in advance).
- Second class (chan song) is a good compromise, costing about the same as 1st class buses (and about 2 times cheaper than 1st class) and with a comparable level of comfort. Some 2nd class trains are air-con, others aren't; air-con costs a little more, but much colder at night. Second class sleeper berths are comfortable and good value, with the narrower upper bunks costing a little less than the wider lower bunks. Food and WCs are basic. 2nd class Express Railcar trains have reclining seats and refreshments are included in the fare; unlike all other Thai passenger trains, they can match buses for speed, but cannot carry bicycles.
- Third class (chan saam) is the cheapest way to travel in Thailand, with virtually nominal fares, and can be great fun. Some 3rd class trains have wooden seats, others are upholstered; some services can be pre-booked, others cannot; refreshments are available from hawkers who roam the aisles. 3rd class trains are slow and not convenient for long distances, but give a distinct feeling of traveling by a classic train.
Full information regarding routes, timetables, and up-to-date ticket costs along with interesting videos can be found at seat61.
Thailand's roads are head and shoulders above its neighbours Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, but driving habits are still quite dangerous. Drunk driving, speeding and reckless passing are depressingly common, and bus and taxi drivers (especially for private companies) work inhuman shifts and often take drugs to keep themselves awake, with predictable and tragic results. It's common for motorbikes — even police! — to drive close to the curb on the wrong side of the road. Death tolls sky-rocket around major holidays, especially Songkhran, when bystanders often throw water on passing cars and bikes. Many drivers don't use headlights at night, multiplying risks, and it is wise to avoid or minimize overnight travel by road.
Note that unlike in its neighbours (except Malaysia), traffic moves on the left side of the road in Thailand and Thai cars are generally right-hand drive. All official road directional signs are written in both Thai and English.
Most major roads are marked in both Thai and English, and traffic culture is not as bad as some might lead you to believe. Keep a sharp lookout in both mirrors for passing traffic including 18-wheelers and scooters.
Traffic on major highways is at 100-120km/h, while smaller highways are generally 80km/h. Gas stations are common and most Thai are more than willing to give directions in spite of any language barriers.
Drive very defensively at first and watch what the locals do. Of course, it helps if you are accustomed to driving on the left side of the road, which in itself could be enough to distract some drivers.
Driving under the influence of alcohol is both illegal and dangerous, and driving at night also increased the risk of accidents — even if you're sober, many others aren't.
Fuel at large petrol stations is around 25 baht/litre. Small kerbside vendors who pump by hand from drums and/or pour from bottles charge a few baht more.
VIP? Very Inferior Product
Buses travel throughout the country and the government's bus company BKS (บขส Baw Kaw Saw), known in English simply as the The Transport Company, has a terminal in every province of any size. If the Transport Company's website is difficult to read, try Sawasdee's bus timetables.
Generally speaking, BKS buses are the best option for both price and comfort. There are also private buses sanctioned by BKS, which operate on the same routes from the same terminals with the same fares, and these are also fine. The ones to watch out for are the illegal bus companies, which operate from tourist areas (especially Khao San Road) and subsidize slightly cheaper tickets with worse amenities, schedules and safety. In particular, beware of non-government "VIP" buses, which often turn out to be cramped minivans - and you'll only find this out after paying in advance.
The basic BKS bus types are:
- Local - relatively slow, can be cramped when full (nevertheless there's always room for one more), and stop at every village and cowshed along the way. Many are of larger songthaew flavour. Not suitable for long-distance travel, but may be the only cheap way to get around locally.
- Express (rot duan) - skip some stops, but no other frills. Identifiable by their orange colour. Size varies, with the largest having around 65 seats (five seats per row) as well as an open space across the width of the bus by the back door for you to sling your backpack, bicycle, sack of rice, live chickens, etc.
- Second class (chan song) - skip more stops, but often take a less direct route than 1st class / VIP / S-VIP. Blue and white with an orange stripe, usually 45-48 seats per bus, air conditioned (some provide blankets, some do not). Most have no on-board toilet, although the frequent stops mean this isn't a problem.
- First class (chan neung) - generally take the most direct routes and make very few stops. Blue and white in colour, air conditioned, blanket usually provided, fewer (larger, longer pitch) seats (typically 40, but some double-decker types seat 60+), snack and drinking water included. Toilet on board for all but the shortest services.
- "VIP" - as per 1st class, but with only 32-34 seats, which have more leg room and recline further. Basic meal included and freshly laundered shrink-wrapped blanket provided. Also blue and white (or sometimes blue and silver) but usually signed "VIP".
- "S-VIP" - Super-VIP is very similar to VIP, except there are only 24 seats, which are wider - the aisle is offset, each row having a pair of seats on the right and only a single seat on the left. Primarily used on overnight services.
Some buses may have TVs and sound systems blaring, so earplugs are well worth having, just in case. On long-haul buses, if your ticket allocates you a front seat, you may have to switch seats if a monk boards.
A songthaew (สองแถว) is a truck-based vehicle with a pair of bench seats in the back, one on either side — hence the name, which means "two rows" in Thai. In English language tourist literature, they're occasionally called "minibuses". By far the most common type is based on a pick-up truck and has a roof and open sides. Larger types start life as small lorries, and may have windows, and an additional central bench; smaller types are converted micro-vans, with a front bench facing backwards and a rear bench facing forwards.
Songthaews are operated extensively as local buses (generally the most economical way to travel shorter distances) and also as taxis; sometimes the same vehicle will be used for both. Be careful if asking a songthaew to take you to some place if there is nobody in the back, the driver might charge you the taxi price. In this case, check the price of the ride before embarking.
The name tuk-tuk is used to describe a wide variety of small/lightweight vehicles. The vast majority have three wheels; some are entirely purpose-built (eg the ubiquitous Bangkok tuk-tuk), others are partially based on motorcycle components (primarily engines, steering, front suspension, fuel tank, drivers seat). A relatively recent development is the four wheeled tuk-tuk (basically a microvan-songthaew) as found in Phuket. Also make sure you hold on to your backpack as it can happen that it will get stolen by two guys on a motorbike whilst driving.
Metered taxis are ubiquitous in Bangkok and starting to become more popular in Chiang Mai, but rare elsewhere in the country. When available, they are an excellent means of transport - insist on the meter. Beware of taxis which idle around touristy areas and wait for people. They are looking for a tourist who will take their taxi without using a meter. Always use the meter!
As is the case throughout virtually all of Asia, motorcycles (motosai) are the most common form of transport overall; the most popular type are the 100cc-125cc step-through models. These are very widely used as taxis, with fares starting from as low as 10 baht. Negotiate the fare with the driver before using his service otherwise you may be charged more than you expect.
Motorcycles can be rented without difficulty in many locations. Rates start at around 125 baht/day for recent 100-125cc semi-automatic (foot operated gear change, automatic clutch) step-through models, 150 baht/day for fully automatic scooters; larger capacity models can also easily be found, although the rates reflect the risks - up to around 2500 baht/day for the very latest model high capacity sport bikes, such as the Honda CBR1000RR. In all cases, lower prices will apply if paying upfront for more than a week or so; in some cases, long-distance travel may be prohibited. Motorcycle rentals do not include insurance, and both motorcycling accidents and motorbike thefts are common.
Many places will rent to you without requiring a license, but legally speaking you must have a valid Thai license or International Driver's Permit. Often a deposit will be required; sometimes a passport photocopy, or even the passport itself (don't do this- bargain to leave some baht instead), will be requested. Helmets are normally included, but are usually ultra-basic models with very flimsy chin-strap fasteners - if you're intending to travel by motorcycle and have a good quality helmet at home, then bring it with you. If supplied a helmet with a chin-cup (many cheap rental helmets are), slide the cup up the strap out of the way and securely fasten the bare strap directly under the jaw, as this is much safer.
Insurance is usually not included (or even available), so try to ensure in advance that the insurance you leave home with is going to cover you; alternatively, arrange cover with an insurance broker locally in Thailand. If you rent a vehicle without insurance and it's damaged or stolen, the bottom line is that you will be required to pay in full the cost of repairing or replacing it. Furthermore, some travel insurance policies will only provide medical cover in the event of an accident if you hold a motorcycle license in your home country.
Motorcyclists (including passengers) are required to wear crash helmets and to keep their headlights switched on at all times. Enforcement varies widely, but in tourist areas spot checks for helmets and/or licences are commonplace. While the fines are light (typically 400 baht) the inconvenience can be considerable as offender's vehicle is impounded until the fine is paid, and the queue at the police station can be lengthy.
Some (but not all) border crossings allow motorcycles through. At those which do, documentation including proof of ownership must be produced (with the possible exception of day visits to Payathonzu, Myanmar via Three Pagodas Pass).
Renting a car to explore on your own is a cost-effective way of getting off the beaten track, and avoids the constant hassle of haggling with local taxi or tuk-tuk drivers. Renting a car usually costs about 1200-1500 baht if you want to go for an economical one like a Toyota Vios.
Driving your own car in Thailand is not for the faint-hearted, and many rental companies can supply drivers at a very reasonable price. Prices without insurance for a self-driven car start from around 900 baht/day for small cars, and from as little as 570 baht/day for the increasingly rare open-top Jeep; cars with insurance start at just under 1000 baht/day, and come down to around 5,600 baht/week or 18,000 baht/month.
Most of the national companies can be found in Thailand together with some reputable local car rental companies, which are often a little cheaper. Cars can be rented without difficulty in many locations. It may be worth paying a little more than the absolute minimum to use one of the international franchises (eg Avis, Budget, and Hertz) to minimize the risk of hassles, and to ensure that any included insurance is actually worth something.
More reputable agencies require that valid licences be produced: foreigners who do not have a Thai driving licence must carry a valid International Driving Permit. Even if you manage to rent a car without an IDP, not having one will invalidate the insurance and count against you in the event of an accident.
A common rental scam involves the owner taking a deposit, and then later refusing to refund it in full on the basis that the customer is responsible for previous damage; the Tourist Police (dial 1155) may be able to help. Another common scam involves the owner having someone follow the rented vehicle and later "steal" it, using a set of spare keys. Always report thefts: a "stolen" vehicle may mysteriously turn up as soon as the police become involved.
One of the Thais' many names for themselves is jao naam, the Water Lords, and from the river expresses of Bangkok to the fishing trawlers of Phuket, boats remain an indispensable way of getting around many parts of the country.
Perhaps the most identifiably Thai boat is the long-tail boat (reua hang yao), a long, thin wooden boat with the propeller at the end of a long 'tail' stretching from the boat. This makes them supremely manoeuvrable even in shallow waters, but they're a little underpowered for longer trips and you'll get wet if it's even a little choppy. Long-tails usually act as taxis that can be chartered, although prices vary widely - figure on 300-400 baht for a few hours' rental, or up to 1500 for a full day. In some locations like Krabi, long-tails run along set routes and charge fixed prices per passenger.
Modern, air-conditioned speedboat services, sometimes ferries (departure every 30min) also run from the Surat Thani to popular islands like Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan. Truly long-distance services (eg Bangkok to any other major city) have, however, effectively ceased to exist as buses, planes and even trains are faster. Safety measures are rudimentary and ferries and speedboats do sink occasionally, so avoid overloaded ships in poor weather, and scope out the nearest life jackets when on board.
Almost everyone in Bangkok uses the Skytrain to avoid the roads' traffic jam. The Bangkok Mass Transit System, known as the BTS Skytrain (Thai: รถไฟฟ้าบีทีเอส rot fai fa BTS), is the rapid transit system in Bangkok. The system of stations features 34 stations and two lines. The first line is the Sukhumvit Line, which runs from the north to the south on the east side of the country (Terminal stations are at Mo Chit and Bearing). The second line is the Silom Line, which travels along Silom and Sathon Roads. The Central Station of Bangkok has one station for each line, with terminal stations at the National Stadium and Wongwian Yai. The lines interchange at Siam Station, where you can change to the MRT or change line on the BTS. The system is formally known as the Noble Train in Celebration of HM the King's 6th Cycle Birthday. For more information of BTS ticket fare ans route map, see http://www.bts.co.th.