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. On highly competitive routes like Bangkok to Phuket it is possible to fly for less than a bus ticket if you book in advance. Various taxes and (often hefty) surcharges are invariably added to advertised prices. Don’t forget to bring the credit card you used to book the ticket.
The airlines have moved away from routing all flights via Bangkok and offer non-stop connections between popular destinations like Chiang Mai and Phuket, Chiang Mai and Hat Yai, Phuket and Ko Samui and Phuket and Siem Reap. The budget airlines are also selling ‘flights’ that are actually packages combining flights with ferry and bus transfers to extend their reach to destinations without usable airports. Few airlines limit themselves to domestic operations; you are likely to find that some budget airline offers better connections to Myanmar or China. The numerous airlines and changing routes make flight price comparison websites useful as long as you buy tickets directly from the airline; you are not going to get Thai budget airline tickets cheaper through a third party.
Pan-ASEAN low-cost carrier AirAsia has great coverage of international and domestic routes in Thailand and offers steeply discounted tickets if booked well in advance; however, prices rise steadily as planes fill up. It’s often the cheapest option, sometimes even cheaper than bus or train, if booked at least a week or two in advance. They fly their A320s from Bangkok to a number of places domestically, and to Cambodia, China, Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia. Their website displays “all-inclusive” prices during booking (which, however, still do not include optional surcharges such as baggage fees). On-line booking is straightforward and can be done even using the mobile phone, but must be done at least 24 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 monopoly on flights to its own airports at Ko Samui (now shared with Thai Airways), Sukhothai, and Trat. Quite an expensive and “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). The Discovery Airpass can only be purchased abroad.
Kan Airlines uses Chiang Mai as its hub and specializes in routes poorly served by its bigger competitors. For example, it is the only airline flying to Hua Hin.
Nok Air took to the skies in 2004 sporting lurid paint schemes with a bird’s beak painted on the nose. Owned mostly by Thai Airways, they compete with Air Asia on price and, with a fairly comprehensive domestic network, are a pretty good choice overall. They ran into some serious turbulence in 2008, cutting their flights by two-thirds, but now seem to have recovered.
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’re taller than about 1.80 m, get an exit row seat unless you want to ride the whole flight with your knees resting against the seat in front.
Thai Airways International is the most reliable, frequent, and comfortable Thai airline, but usually more expensive than the alternatives (look for their promotions). Travel agents often sell only Thai Airways (and 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 Lion Air is a budget airline started in 2013 as an offshoot of the Indonesian Lion Air. It still runs aggressive price promotions on most popular routes but you may have to fly very late or very early with inconvenient airport transfers.
Thai VietJet Air operates flights on behalf of the Vietnamese VietJet Air using Suvarnabhumi as its hub.
State Railway of Thailand (SRT) has a 4,000-km network covering most of the country, 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 safer. You can pick up fruits, snacks and cooked food from vendors at most stations.
Point-to-point fares depend on the type (speed) of the train and the class of the carriage. There are three classes of service:
- 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.
- Second class (chan song) is a good compromise, costing about the same as 1st class buses and with a comparable level of comfort. Some 2nd class trains are air-con, others aren’t; air-con costs a little more. 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. Sometimes packed with tuk-tuk drivers heading home with a sack of rice and a bottle of cheap whisky for company, as a farang (foreigner) you’re guaranteed to be the centre of attention – quite enjoyable in small doses, but 10 hours of this might be a bit much. 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. No air-conditioning, but since there are fans in the ceiling and the cars are lined with huge, wide-open windows, there’s plenty of wind. It’s only really hot under the midday beating sun and sometimes when the train is stopped.
You can ship your motorbike on the same train on which you travel. All trains do not have baggage cars, so check with the ticket office. Shipping costs for motorbikes are roughly equivalent to the price of a first-class ticket on the same train.
Full information regarding routes, timetables and up-to-date ticket costs along with interesting videos can be found at seat61.com.
Thailand’s roads are head and shoulders above its neighbors Myanmar, Laos or Cambodia and in the last few years, being the subject of major improvements but driving habits are still quite dangerous. Drunk driving, speeding and reckless passing are 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. Lately, road blocks and strict policing are being implemented quite often in an attempt to address the situation but it may still take same time for the results to start bearing fruit. There are an estimated 24,000 fatalities on Thai roads annually. 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 Songkran, when bystanders often throw water on passing cars and bikes. Many drivers forget to switch on headlights at night, multiplying risks, and it is wise to avoid or minimize overnight travel by road.
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. Most official road directional signs are written in both Thai and English.
Renting a car to explore on your own is a cost-effective way of getting off the beaten track if you are with a 4-person group, and will avoid the constant hassle of haggling with local taxi/tuk-tuk drivers. 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 from passing traffic including 18-wheelers and scooters. If you travel with one companion and have a motorbike license, it’s worth it exploring the possibilities of using small automatic gearbox 125/150cc step-on bikes to do shorter local excursions and use other mass means of transport for longer travel distances between cities and towns. It’s quite safe to use these bikes and it allows one to appreciate the landscapes, if you stick to moderate speeds and keep to the left hand side of the road, like the local bikers do.
Traffic on major highways moves at 100-120 km/h, while smaller highways are generally 80 km/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 Western drivers.
Driving under the influence of alcohol is illegal and dangerous, and driving at night also increased the risk of accidents — even if you’re sober, many others aren’t.
If you’re traveling by public conveyance-bus, train, airplane-you may be shocked at the difference in cost between long distance and local travel. A 119 km journey between Khon Kaen and Udon Thani in a minivan costs 84 baht, or 0.71 baht per kilometre. Traveling the three kilometres from the bus station to a hotel will cost 60-100 baht, or 20-33 baht per kilometre (Nov 2015).
Renting a car usually costs between 1,200-1,500 baht if you want to go for an economical one like a Toyota Vios. Most international companies can be found in Thailand. Also check guides to particular cities for reputable local car rental companies, which are often a little cheaper. You can choose among international companies such as Budget, Avis or you can choose to book with local company like www.thailandcarsrentals.com. Check the documentation and make sure that everything is done according to rules. Perform required checks and notify the car company about any damage before using the vehicle.
Buses travel throughout the country and the government’s bus company BKS (บขส Baw Kaw Saw), known in English simply as the Transport Company, has a terminal in every province of any size.
Generally speaking, BKS buses are a good 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. Not much (10-20%) cheaper than the First class, and significantly slower, worth using if there’s no better choice available to your destination.
- 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. On overnight trips, a (Thai) meal at a long (25-30 minutes) stop in the middle of the night is normally included, a small separate ticket (written entirely in Thai) is often given at the start of the journey for that purpose; if not, just follow the other passengers. Good enough (and often the best class available) for medium- to long-distance trips.
- “VIP” (also referred to as VIP32) – 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”. Somewhat (25-30%, which amounts to 100-180 baht for a typical overnight route) more expensive than the first class. Available only on more busy routes, like Bangkok to Chiang Mai or Phuket.
- “S-VIP” (also known as VIP24, or just called VIP by some bus companies who do not use the 32-seater VIP – note the price to avoid confusion, as it will be between 50% and twice more than the First class) – 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. Nowadays, some companies (Green Bus for example) also install personal TV systems similar to those in the airplane, but the choice of English-language movies may be very limited. Primarily used on overnight services.
If you are travelling a long distance on a daytime bus, take a minute to figure out the sunny side and the shady side of the bus. For example, going from Chiang Mai to Bangkok on a 09:00 bus (south), seats on the right side will be bathed in sunlight all day (curtains are provided), so the left side is preferred by most.
Like travelling by train, pre-booking and e-ticketing is also available in some bus lines routing from Bangkok to reachable provinces and vice-versa. e-Tickets can be booked and purchased through travel agencies, bus-line websites and online ticketing systems such as, 12go.asia.
Other reputable tour bus companies:
- Green Bus Corporation (Chiang Mai-based).
- Nakhonchaiair Co., Ltd.
- Sombat Tour Co., Ltd.
Minivan services are ubiquitous, although under the radar as minivans typically are anonymous grey Toyota vans with no company markings. They serve shorter routes, such as Krabi to Phuket, about 180 km or Bangkok to Hua Hin, about 200 km. The purported advantage of taking a minibus is speed, as they move quickly once they get going. Disadvantages are that they are expensive compared with standard bus travel, they can be uncomfortable as they are usually crammed full, and they offer little room for luggage. Take minivans from bus stations. Do not take minivans that offer to pick you up at your hotel. They will pick you up, but then you will spend the next hour driving to other hotels to pick up more passengers. You will then be driven to an aggregator where all the collected passengers will disembark to wait for the minivan to their respective destinations. Then you will likely be driven to a bus station to change to a third and final minivan. Better just to sleep in, then go to bus station to book your (cheaper) minivan ticket, thus saving 2 hours of pointless discomfort.
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 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 someplace 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 (e.g., 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.
Tuk-tuks are small, noisy, and perhaps dangerous; but possibly the worst thing about them is that, as a passenger, you cannot see a damned thing due to the low roof line. To catch even a glimpse of the passing scene you will find yourself practically supine.
You will often find yourself at the mercy of the tuk-tuk driver when it comes to pricing as you will likely have no clue as to the acceptable raa kaa Thai (“Thai price”) and will probably have to cough up a raa kaa farang (“farang price”). Even if you do know the Thai price, the driver may just not bother to accept it on principle. If you pay with a larger denomination bill, it is also probable that the driver will whine that he has no change. If this happens, try to break the note in a nearby shop.
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. Instead, try to flag down a taxi moving down the street, or use a taxi stand where the locals are queueing. Always insist on the meter, and use another taxi if the driver refuses to turn it on. Most drivers do not speak English, so be sure to have your hotel staff write the names of your destinations in Thai to show the driver.
The main ride hailing app is Grab.
As is the case throughout virtually all of Southeast Asia, motorcycles (motosai) are the most common form of transport overall; the most popular type are the 100 cc-125 cc 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 100-125 cc 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 2,500 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 will be requested (Don’t do this. Bargain to leave some baht instead). An International Driver’s Permit may be used for a maximum of 90 days; having one might lead to requesting your passport to see the entrance stamp, another reason not to leave your passport at the renting company. 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 (take photos of the bike at the time of rental!), 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.
According to the WHO Global Status Report on Road Safety 2013, Thailand in 2010 had 38.1 road fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants. This is the second highest in the world. 74% of those fatalities involved “motorized two or three wheelers”. 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 licenses are commonplace. While the fines are light (typically 400 baht) the inconvenience can be considerable as offender’s vehicle and/or driver’s license is impounded until the fine is paid, and the queue at the police station can be lengthy.
Some 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).
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 longtail boat (reua hang yao), a long, narrow 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. Longtails 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 1,500 baht for a full day. In some locations like Krabi, longtails run along set routes and charge fixed prices per passenger.
Modern, air-conditioned speedboat services, sometimes ferries (departure every 30 min) also run from the Surat Thani to popular islands like Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan. Truly long-distance services (e.g., 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. As of November 2018, ferry service is available between Hua Hin and Pattaya, a 2.5-hour journey for 1,250 Thai Baht on a catamaran with a maximum capacity of 340.