Get Around Thailand
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. Note that various taxes and (often hefty) surcharges are invariably added to "advertised" prices.
Pan-ASEAN low cost carrier AirAsia web 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 (quite new) A320s from Bangkok to a number of places domestically, as well as to Cambodia, China, Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia. Recently, they started to display "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 twenty-four hours in advance; ticket sales at the check-in desk close one hour before the departure time.
Bangkok Airways web 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 web 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 web took to the skies in 2004 sporting lurid paints scheme 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've run into some serious turbulence in 2008, cutting their flights by two thirds, but now seem to recover as the oil prices went down in 2009.
Orient Thai web, until recently 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 web is the most reliable, frequent, and comfortable Thai airline, but usually more expensive than the alternatives (look for their promotions, though). 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.
SGA Airline web flies mostly in northern Thailand and is the only carrier offering flights between Chiang Mai-Pai, Mae Hong Son, Nan and Chiang Rai. They cooperate with Nok and Thai.
SRT railway network
State Railway of Thailand web (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 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:
Pre-booking is recommended, especially for sleeper berths. Tickets on all main lines can be purchased online at SRT's official E-Stars site web; however, only a quota of 10% of seats can be sold online, so it will often show trains as full when, in reality, there's still plenty of space (Tip: if you get an error during registration - just remove any special characters from your registration data; you can always edit your profile later). Alternatively, many travel agencies can book tickets for a service fee (50-200 baht/ticket), or you can reserve with SRT directly by e-mail at email@example.com for a 200 baht/booking surcharge.
Full information regarding routes, timetables, and up-to-date ticket costs along with interesting videos can be found at http://www.seat61.com by selecting 'Asia' and then 'Thailand'.
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.
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/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. Traffic on major highways follows 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 North American or European 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. Renting a car usually costs between 1200-1500 baht if you want to go for an economical one like a Toyota Vios . Most of the national companies can be found in Thailand . Also reputable local car rental companies, which are often a little cheaper, include:
VIP? Means: Very Inferior Product
Travel agencies, particularly those on Bangkok's Khao San Road, are keen to sell you VIP bus tickets. These are more often than not cramped minibuses that will do their best to arrive late, often by breaking down right next to a conveniently located restaurant, and sell you to the guesthouse that gives them the highest commissions. Theft, particularly on routes to the south, is also a major problem. Thais never use them, opting for public BKS buses instead - and you should too.
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 web, has a terminal in every province of any size. If the Transport Company's website is difficult to read, try Sawasdee's bus time tables.
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:
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 (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.
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 gearchange, 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).
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 open-top jeeps; cars with insurance start at just under 1000 baht/day, and come down to around 5,600 baht/week or 18,000 baht/month.
Driving is (usually, but not always!) on the left hand side of the road. Fuel at large petrol stations is 32-45 baht/litre. Small kerb side vendors who pump by hand from drums and/or pour from bottles charge a few baht more.
Cars can be rented without difficulty in many locations. It's 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 manouverable 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 30 mins) 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.