The true Thai river transport is the reua hǎang yao (long-tail boat), so-called because the propeller is mounted at the end of a long drive shaft extending from the engine. Long-tail boats can travel at a phenomenal speed.
The long-tail boats are a staple of transport on rivers and canals in Bangkok and neighbouring provinces.
Between the mainland and islands in the Gulf of Thailand or Andaman Sea, the standard craft is an all-purpose wooden boat, 8m to 10m long, with a large inboard engine, a wheelhouse and a simple roof to shelter passengers and cargo. Faster, more expensive hovercraft or jetfoils are sometimes available in tourist areas.
Hitchhiking is never entirely safe in any country and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that there’s a small but serious risk. However, many people do choose to hitch, and the advice that follows should help to make the journey as fast and safe as possible.
People have mixed success with hitching in Thailand; sometimes it’s great and at other times no-one wants to pick you up. It seems easiest in the more touristy areas of the north and south, and most difficult in the central and northeastern regions where tourists are a relatively rare sight. To stand on a road and try to flag every vehicle that passes by is, to the Thais, something only an uneducated village dweller would do.
If you’re prepared to face this perception, the first step is to use the correct gesture for flagging a ride – the thumb-out gesture isn’t recognised by the average Thai. When Thais want a ride they stretch one arm out with the hand open, palm facing down, and move the hand up and down. This is the same gesture used to flag a taxi or bus, which is why some drivers will stop and point to a bus stop if one is nearby.
In general, hitching isn’t worth the hassle as buses are frequent and cheap. However, there’s no need to stand at a bus station – all you have to do is stand on any road going in your direction and flag down a passing bus or săwngthăew (pick-up truck).
The exception is in areas where there isn’t any bus service, though in such places there’s not likely to be very much private vehicle traffic either. If you do manage to get a ride, it’s customary to offer food or cigarettes to the driver if you have any.
Bangkok has the largest city-bus system in the country. Elsewhere in the country, public transport is typically supplied by sǎwngthǎew that run established routes, although Udon Thani and a few other provincial capitals have city buses. The etiquette for riding public transport is to hail the vehicle by waving your hand palm-side downward; you typically pay the fare once you’ve taken a seat or when you disembark. Occasionally in tourist centres, drivers operating a sǎwngthǎew intended for shared use will try to convince foreigners to ‘charter’ the vehicle by quoting a large fare before boarding.
Cars, jeeps and vans can be rented in most major cities and airports. The international chains have offices in most of the major cities and can be booked prior to arrival via their websites. Local companies are located in major tourist destinations and tend to have cheaper rates than the international chains, but their fleets of cars tend to be older and not as well maintained. Check the tyre treads and general upkeep of the vehicle before committing.
Motorcycles can be rented in major towns and many smaller tourist centres from guesthouses and small mum-and-pop businesses. Renting a motorcycle in Thailand is relatively easy and a great way to independently tour the countryside, especially in northern Thailand and on the southern beaches. For daily rentals, most businesses will ask that you leave your passport as a deposit. Before renting a motorcycle, check the vehicle for condition and ask for a helmet (which is required by law in some provinces).
Many tourists are injured riding motorcycles in Thailand because they don’t know how to handle the vehicle and are unfamiliar with road rules and conditions. Be sure to have adequate health insurance and drive sensibly to avoid damage to yourself and to the vehicle. If you’ve never driven a motorcycle before, stick to the smaller 100cc step-through bikes with automatic clutches. Remember to distribute weight as evenly as possible across the frame of the bike to improve handling.
It is also possible to buy a new or used motorcycle and sell it before you leave the country. A used 125cc bike can be purchased for as low as 25, 000B; you’ll pay up to 60, 000B for a reconditioned Honda MTX or AX-1, and more for the newer and more reliable Honda Degree or Yamaha TTR 250. If you’re looking for a more narrowly defined dirt bike, check out the Yamaha Serow.
Thailand requires a minimum of liability insurance for all registered vehicles on the road. The better hire companies include comprehensive coverage for their vehicles. Always verify that a vehicle is insured for liability before signing a rental contract; you should also ask to see the dated insurance documents. If you have an accident while driving an uninsured vehicle, you’re in for some major hassles.
If you need auto insurance, a policy can be purchased through local companies inexpensively. Two of the more reliable ones are Bangkok Insurance (0 2285 8888; www.bki.co.th) and AIA Thailand (www.aiathailand.com).
Update (July 2013): In the last month there have been two derailments on the Bangkok-Chiang Mai line with officials pointing to old tracks as being a possible cause. Travellers are advised to investigate the situation further before booking a journey.
The government rail network, the State Railway of Thailand (SRT; 1690; www.railway.co.th), is, on the whole, very well run. The rail network covers four main lines – the northern, southern, northeastern and eastern lines. The train is most convenient as an alternative to buses for the long journey north to Chiang Mai or south to Surat Thani. But the emergence of cheap airfares are starting to undermine the ‘romance’ of the train in favour of time savings. The train is also ideal for trips to Ayuthaya and Lopburi from Bangkok.
Although they take longer (trains generally don’t run on time), the trains offer many advantages over buses. To start with, there is more room to move and stretch out than there is on even the best buses. The scenery rolling by the windows is grander from the vantage point of rail than highway and there’s usually more local commotion on the trains: hawkers selling food and drinks, babies staring wide-eyed at foreigners, sarong-clad villagers – to name a few.
Almost all the long-distance trains originate from Bangkok’s Hualamphong station. Bangkok Noi station in Thonburi serves the commuter and the short-line trains running to Kanchanaburi/Nam Tok, Suphanburi, Ratchaburi and Nakhon Pathom. You can also get to Ratchaburi and Nakhon Pathom by trains from Hualamphong. Thonburi’s Wong Wian Yai station runs a short commuter line to Samut Songkhram.
The SRT operates passenger trains in three classes – 1st, 2nd and 3rd – but each class varies considerably depending on whether you’re on an ordinary, rapid or express train.
A typical 3rd-class train carriage consists of two rows of bench seats divided into facing pairs. Each bench seat is designed to seat two or three passengers, but on a crowded rural line nobody seems to care about design considerations. On a rapid train, 3rd-class seats are padded and reasonably comfortable for shorter trips. On ordinary 3rd-class-only trains in the east and northeast, seats are sometimes made of hard wooden slats. Express trains do not carry 3rd-class carriages at all. Commuter trains in the Bangkok area are all 3rd class.
The seating arrangements in a 2nd-class, nonsleeper train carriage are similar to those on a bus, with pairs of padded seats, usually recliners, all facing toward the front of the train.
On 2nd-class sleeper cars, pairs of seats face one another and convert into two fold-down berths, one over the other. Curtains provide a modicum of privacy and the berths are fairly comfortable, with fresh linen for every trip. The lower berth has more headroom than the upper berth and this is reflected in a higher fare (a difference of about 200B). A toilet stall and washbasins are at one end of the carriage.
2nd-class carriages are found only on rapid and express trains. Air-con 2nd class is more common nowadays than ordinary 2nd class (with the latter available only on rapid lines).
Each private cabin in a 1st-class train carriage has individually controlled air-con (older trains also have an electric fan), a washbasin and mirror, a small table and long bench seats that convert into beds. Drinking water and soap are provided free of charge. First-class carriages are available only on rapid, express and special-express trains.
Fares are calculated first by a base price then surcharges are added depending on the train type (special express, express, rapid, ordinary), class and distance. There is an 80B surcharge above the basic fare for rót dùan (express trains) and 60B for rót rew (rapid trains). These trains are somewhat faster than the ordinary trains, as they make fewer stops. Note that there are no 3rd-class carriages on either rapid or express trains. For the rót dùan phísèht (special-express trains) that run between Bangkok and Padang Besar and between Bangkok and Chiang Mai there is a 100B to 120B surcharge. For distances under 500km, the base rate is 50B; over 500km, 70B to 80B.
Some 2nd- and 3rd-class services are air-con, in which case there is a 120B to 140B surcharge. Sleeping berths in 2nd class accrue another 100B to 240B surcharge. There’s a choice between upper and lower – the difference being that there is a window next to the lower berth and more head room. No sleepers are available in 3rd class.
All 1st-class cabins come with individually controlled air-con. For a two-bed cabin the surcharge is 400B per person. Single 1st-class cabins are not available, so if you’re travelling alone you may be paired with another passenger, although the SRT takes great care not to mix genders.
You’ll find that all train stations in Thailand have baggage-storage services (or ‘cloak rooms’). The rates and hours of operation vary from station to station. At Bangkok’s Hualamphong station, for example, rates are 20B to 30B per day. Most stations have a ticket window that will open between 15 and 30 minutes before train arrivals. There are also newsagents and small snack vendors, but no full-service restaurants.
You can book air-con BKS buses at any BKS terminal. Ordinary (nonair-con) buses cannot be booked in advance. Privately run buses can be booked through most hotels or any travel agency, but it’s best to book directly through a bus office to be sure that you get what you pay for.
Advance bookings may be made one to 60 days before your intended date of departure. During holidays – especially around holiday time, eg the middle of April approaching the Songkran Festival, during Chinese New Year and during the peak tourist-season months of December and January – it is advised to book as far in advance as possible as all public transport options become very crowded during this time. You can make bookings from any train station. Throughout Thailand SRT ticket offices are generally open 8.30am to 6pm on weekdays, and 8.30am to noon on weekends and public holidays. Train tickets can also be purchased at certain travel agencies in Bangkok. It is much simpler to book trains through these agencies than to book them at the station; however, they usually add a service charge to the ticket price.
Trains out of Bangkok should be booked as far in advance as possible – a minimum of a week for popular routes such as the northern line to Chiang Mai and the southern line to Hat Yai, especially if you want a sleeper. For the northeastern and eastern lines a few days will suffice. Midweek departures are always easier to book than weekends; during some months of the year you can easily book a sleeper even one day before departure, as long as it’s on a Tuesday, Wednesday or Thursday. With the exception of Surat Thani and Chiang Mai, booking trains back to Bangkok is generally not as difficult as booking trains out of Bangkok.
Many operators around the world can arrange guided tours of Thailand. Most of them simply serve as brokers for tour companies based in Thailand; they buy their trips from a wholesaler and resell them under various names in travel markets overseas. Hence, one is much like another and you might as well arrange a tour in Thailand at a lower cost – there are so many available. Long-running, reliable tour wholesalers in Thailand include the following:
The better overseas tour companies build their own Thailand itineraries from scratch and choose their local suppliers based on which best serve these itineraries. Of these, several specialise in adventure and/or ecological tours:
Asia Transpacific Journeys (800-642 2742, 303-443 6789; www.southeastasia.com; 2995 Center Green Dr, Boulder, CO 80301, USA) Northern Thailand trekking to sea canoeing in the Phuket Sea, plus custom tour planning.
Exodus (800 228 8747; www.exodustravels.co.uk; 9 Weir Rd, London SW12 OLT) Winner of 2006 British Travel Award for most environmentally responsible tour agency.
Hands Up Holidays (0 776 5601 3631; www.handsupholidays.com; 21 Corayne Rd, Fulham, London SW6 3QA) Volunteer & sightseeing programmes.
Many cities in Thailand also have mawtoesai ráp jâang, 100cc to 125cc motorcycles that can be hired, with a driver, for short distances. They’re not very suitable if you’re carrying more than a backpack or small suitcase, but if you’re empty-handed they can’t be beaten for quick transport over short distances. In addition to the lack of space for luggage, motorcycle taxis also suffer from lack of shelter from rain or sun. Although most drivers around the country drive at safe, sane speeds, the kamikaze drivers of Bangkok are a major exception.
In most cities you’ll find motorcycle taxis clustered near street intersections, rather than cruising the streets looking for fares. Fares tend to run from 10B to 30B, depending on distance. Some motorcycle taxis specialise in regular, short routes, eg from one end of a long street to another. In such cases the fare is usually a fixed 10B.
Sǎamláw means ‘three wheels’ and that’s just what they are – three-wheeled vehicles. There are two types of sǎamláw – motorised and nonmotorised.
You’ll find motorised sǎamláw throughout the country. They’re small utility vehicles, powered by horrendously noisy engines (usually LPG-powered); if the noise and vibration don’t get you, the fumes will. Tourists commonly know motor sǎamláw as túk-túk, because of the noise they make. Among themselves, the Thais still call these sǎamláw – the term túk-túk is strictly foreigner talk but it’s what most Thais use when speaking to Western tourists.
The nonmotorised sǎamláw, ie the bicycle rickshaw or pedicab, is similar to what you may see in other parts of Asia. There are no bicycle sǎamláw in Bangkok but you will find them elsewhere in the country. With either form of sǎamláw the fare must be established by bargaining before departure.
Those interested in pedicab lore and design may want to have a look at Lonely Planet’s hardcover pictorial book, Chasing Rickshaws, by Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler.
A sǎwngthǎew (literally, ‘two rows’) is a small pick-up truck with two rows of bench seats down both sides of the truck bed. They sometimes operate on fixed routes, just like buses, but they may also run a share-taxi type of service or can even be booked individually just like a regular taxi. Sǎwngthǎew are often colour-coded, so that red ones, for example, go to one destination or group of destinations, while blue ones go to another.
Bangkok is the only city in Thailand to have either an above-ground or underground light-rail public transport system. Known as the Skytrain and the Metro, respectively, both systems have helped to alleviate the capital city’s notorious traffic jams. There has been much unfulfilled talk about building a subway in Chiang Mai but little action.
Hopping around the country by air is becoming more and more affordable these days thanks to airline deregulation. Most routes originate from Bangkok, but Chiang Mai, Ko Samui and Phuket both have routes to other Thai towns.
Thailand’s national carrier is Thai Airways International (THAI), which operates many domestic air routes from Bangkok to provincial capitals. Bangkok Air provides some alternatives between Chiang Mai and the south that bypass Bangkok. One-Two-Go, Nok Air and Air Asia all tend to be cheaper than the older, more established carriers.
For travelling just about anywhere outside Bangkok, bicycles are an ideal form of local transport – cheap, nonpolluting and slow moving enough to allow travellers to see everything.
Bicycle touring is also a popular way to see the country as most roads are sealed with roomy shoulders. Grades in most parts of the country are moderate; exceptions include the far north, especially Mae Hong Son and Nan Provinces. There is plenty of opportunity for dirt-road and off-road pedalling, especially in the north, so a sturdy mountain bike would make a good alternative to a touring rig. Favoured touring routes include the two-lane roads along the Mekong River in the north and northeast – the terrain is largely flat and the river scenery is inspiring.
You can take bicycles on the train for a little less than the equivalent of one 3rd-class fare. On ordinary buses they’ll place your bike on the roof, and on air-con buses it will be put in the cargo hold.
The 2500-member Thailand Cycling Club (08 1555 2901; www.thaicycling.com), established in 1959, serves as an information clearing house on biking tours and cycle clubs.
Because duties are high on imported bikes, in most cases you’ll do better to bring your own bike to Thailand rather than purchase one here.
One of the best shops for cycling gear in Thailand is the centrally located Probike (0 2253 3384; www.probike.co.th; 237/1 Soi Sarasin, Bangkok) opposite Lumphini Park. Probike carries bikes and parts for Gary Fisher, Klein, Challenger, + LeMond and Trek.