Hopping around the country by air continues to be affordable. Most routes originate from Bangkok (both Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi International Airports), but Chiang Mai, Hat Yai, Ko Samui, Phuket and Udon Thani all have a few routes to other Thai towns.
For exploring the more rural, less-trafficked corners of Thailand – Ayuthaya Historical Park, Pai, Sukhothai Historical Park – bicycles are a great way to get around. They can usually be hired from guesthouses for as little as 50B per day, though they aren’t always high quality.
Elsewhere, lack of infrastructure and dangerous roads mean that cycling isn't generally recommended as a means of transport for the casual tourist. Exceptions are the guided bicycle tours of Bangkok and some other large cities that stick to rural routes.
Yet despite the risks, bicycle touring is an increasingly popular way to see Thailand, and most roads are sealed and have roomy shoulders. A good resource for cycling in the country is Bicycle Thailand (www.bicyclethailand.com).
The true Thai water transport is the reu·a hăhng yow (long-tail boat), so-called because the propeller is mounted at the end of a long driveshaft extending from the engine. The long-tail boats are a staple of transport on rivers and canals in Bangkok and neighbouring provinces, and between islands.
Between the mainland and small, less-touristed islands, the standard craft is a wooden boat, 8m to 10m long, with an inboard engine, a wheelhouse and a simple roof to shelter passengers and cargo. To more popular destinations, faster hovercraft (jetfoils) and speedboats are the norm.
The bus network in Thailand is prolific and reliable. The Thai government subsidises the Transport Company (bò·rí·sàt kŏn sòng), usually abbreviated to Baw Khaw Saw (BKS). Every city and town in Thailand linked by bus has a BKS station, even if it’s just a patch of dirt by the side of the road.
By far the most reliable bus companies in Thailand are the ones that operate out of the BKS stations. In some cases the companies are entirely state owned; in others they are private concessions.
We do not recommend using bus companies that operate directly out of tourist centres, such as Bangkok’s Th Khao San, because of repeated instances of theft and commission-seeking stops. Be sure to be aware of bus scams and other common problems.
For an increasing number of destinations, minivans are superseding buses. Minivans are run by private companies and because their vehicles are smaller, they can depart from the market (instead of the out-of-town bus stations) and in some cases will deliver passengers directly to their hotel. Just don’t sit in the front – that way you can avoid watching the driver’s daredevil techniques!
The cheapest and slowest buses are the rót tam·má·dah (ordinary fan buses) that stop in every little town and for every waving hand along the highway. Only a few of these ordinary buses still exist, mostly in rural locations or for local destinations.
Rót aa (air-con buses) come in a variety of classes, depending on the destination's distance. Short distances are usually covered by the basic 2nd-class bus, which does not have an on-board toilet. For longer routes, buses increase in comfort and amenities, ranging from 1st class to ‘VIP’ and ‘Super VIP’. The latter two have fewer seats so that each seat reclines further; sometimes these are called rót norn (sleeper buses).
Bring a jacket for long-distance bus trips as air-con keeps the cabin at arctic temperatures. The service on these buses is usually quite good and on certain routes sometimes includes a beverage and video, courtesy of an ‘air hostess’.
On overnight journeys the buses usually stop somewhere en route for a midnight meal.
You can book air-con BKS buses at any BKS terminal, or even by phone with a payment at 7-Eleven. Ordinary fan buses cannot be booked in advance. Privately run buses can be booked through most hotels or any travel agency.
Car & Motorcycle
In theory short-term visitors who wish to drive vehicles (including motorcycles) in Thailand need an international driving permit (IDP). In reality this is rarely enforced.
Fuel & Spare Parts
Modern petrol (gasoline) stations are plentiful. All fuel in Thailand is unleaded; diesel is used by trucks and some passenger cars. Thailand also uses several alternative fuels, including gasohol (a blend of petrol and ethanol that comes in either 91% or 95% octane levels) and compressed natural gas, used by taxis with bi-fuel capabilities. In more rural areas ben·sin/nám·man rót yon (petrol containing benzene) is usually available at small roadside or village stands.
Cars, 4WDs and vans can be hired in most major cities and airports from local companies as well as all the usual international chains. Local companies tend to have cheaper rates, but the quality of their fleets vary. Check the tyre tread and general upkeep of the vehicle before committing.
Motorcycles can be hired in major towns and tourist centres from guesthouses and small mom-and-pop businesses. Hiring a motorcycle in Thailand is relatively easy and a great way to independently tour the countryside. For daily hires most businesses will ask that you leave your passport as a deposit. Before hiring a motorcycle, check the vehicle’s condition and ask for a helmet (which is required by law).
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.
Road Rules & Hazards
Thais drive on the left-hand side of the road – most of the time! Other than that, just about anything goes, in spite of road signs and speed limits.
The main rule to be aware of is that right of way goes to the bigger vehicle – this is not what it says in the Thai traffic laws, but it’s the reality. Maximum speed limits are 50km/h on urban roads and 80km/h to 100km/h on most highways – but on any given stretch of highway you’ll see various vehicles travelling as slowly as 30km/h and as fast as 150km/h.
Indicators are often used to warn passing drivers about oncoming traffic. A flashing left indicator means it’s OK to pass, while a right indicator means that someone’s approaching from the other direction. Horns are used to tell other vehicles that the driver plans to pass. When drivers flash their lights, they’re telling you not to pass.
In Bangkok traffic is chaotic, roads are poorly signposted and motorcycles and random contraflows mean you can suddenly find yourself facing a wall of cars coming the other way.
Outside of the capital, the principal hazard when driving in Thailand, besides the general disregard for traffic laws, is having to contend with so many different types of vehicles on the same road – trucks, bicycles, túk-túk and motorcycles. This danger is often compounded by the lack of working lights. In village areas the vehicular traffic is lighter but you have to contend with stray chickens, dogs and water buffaloes.
Thailand’s roads are dangerous: in 2015 the World Health Organization declared Thailand the second-deadliest country for road fatalities in the world. Several high-profile bus accidents involving foreign tourists have prompted some Western nations to issue travel advisories for highway safety due to disregard for speed limits, reckless driving and long-distance bus drivers' use of stimulants.
Fatal bus crashes make headlines, but nearly 75% of vehicle accidents in Thailand involve motorcycles. Less than half of the motorcyclists in the country wear helmets and many tourists are injured riding motorcycles because they don't know how to handle the vehicles and are unfamiliar with local driving conventions. British consular offices cited Thailand as a primary destination for UK citizens experiencing road-traffic accidents, often involving motorcyclists.
If you are a novice motorcyclist, familiarise yourself with the vehicle in an uncongested area of town and stick to the smaller 100cc automatic bikes. Drive slowly, especially when roads are slick or when there is loose gravel. Remember to distribute weight as evenly as possible across the frame of the bike to improve handling. And don't expect that other vehicles will look out for you: motorcycles are low on the traffic totem pole.
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who decide to hitch should understand that they are taking a small but potentially serious risk. Other than at some national parks where there isn’t public transport, hitching is rarely seen these days in Thailand, so most passing motorists might not realise the intentions of the foreigner standing on the side of the road with a thumb out. Indeed, Thais don’t ‘thumb it’; instead, when they want a ride they wave their hand with the palm facing the ground. This is the same gesture used to flag a taxi or bus, which is why some drivers might stop and point to a bus stop if one is nearby.
City Bus & Sŏrng·tăa·ou
Bangkok has the largest city-bus system in the country, while Udon Thani and a few other provincial capitals have some city-bus services. The etiquette for riding public buses is to wait at a bus stop and hail the vehicle by waving your hand palm-side downward. You typically pay the fare once you’ve taken a seat or, in some cases, when you disembark.
Elsewhere, public transport is provided by sŏrng·tăa·ou ('two rows'; a small pick-up truck outfitted with two facing benches for passengers). They sometimes operate on fixed routes, just like buses, but they may also run a shared taxi service where they pick up passengers going in the same general direction. In tourist centres, sŏrng·tăa·ou can be chartered just like a regular taxi, but you’ll need to negotiate the fare beforehand. You can usually hail a sŏrng·tăa·ou anywhere along its route and pay the fare when you disembark.
Depending on the region, sŏrng·tăa·ou might also run a fixed route from the centre of town to outlying areas, or even points within the provinces.
Bangkok is the only city in Thailand to have an above-ground (BTS) and underground light-rail (MRT) public transport system.
Many cities in Thailand have mor·đeu·sai ráp jâhng, motorcycle taxis that can be hired for short distances. If you’re empty-handed or travelling with a small bag, they can’t be beaten for transport in a pinch.
In most cities, you’ll find motorcycle taxis clustered near street intersections. Usually they wear numbered jerseys. You’ll need to establish the price beforehand.
Săhm·lór & Túk-túk
Săhm·lór (also spelt sǎamláw) are three-wheeled pedicabs that are typically found in small towns where traffic is light and old-fashioned ways persist.
The modern era’s version of the human-powered săhm·lór is the motorised túk-túk (pronounced đúk dúk). They’re small utility vehicles, powered by screaming engines (usually LPG-powered) with a lot of flash and sparkle.
With either form of transport the fare must be established by bargaining before departure. In tourist centres, túk-túk drivers often grossly overcharge foreigners, so have a sense of how much the fare should be before soliciting a ride. Hotel staff are helpful in providing reasonable fare suggestions.
Readers 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.
Bangkok has the most formal system of metered taxis, although other cities have growing 'taxi meter' networks. In some cases, fares are set in advance or require negotiation.
In bigger cities, traditional taxi alternatives and app-based taxi hailing initiatives are also available – at least, sort of.
Introduced to Thailand in 2014, Uber (www.uber.com) quickly gained popularity among those looking to avoid the usual Bangkok taxi headaches: communication issues, perpetual lack of change and inability to get a taxi during peak periods. Later that year, however, the service was banned because drivers and the payment system didn't meet government standards. It continues to operate, although less visibly.
Other app-based services include GrabTaxi (www.grabtaxi.com/th), All Thai Taxi (www.allthaitaxi.com) and Easy Taxi (www.easytaxi.com).
Thailand’s train system connects the four corners of the country and is a scenic, if slow, alternative to buses for the long journey north to Chiang Mai or south to Surat Thani. The train is also ideal for short trips to Ayuthaya and Lopburi from Bangkok, where traffic is a consideration.
The 4500km rail network is operated by the State Railway of Thailand and covers four main lines: northern, southern, northeastern and eastern. All long-distance trains originate from Bangkok’s Hualamphong Train Station.
Most train stations have printed timetables in English, though this isn’t always the case for smaller stations.
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. In 2016, SRT announced the purchase of 115 modern train carriages with seat-mounted TV screens and more comfortable bathrooms, currently in use on the northern and northeastern routes.
1st class Private, two-bunk cabins define the 1st-class carriages, which are available only on rapid, express and special-express trains.
2nd class The seating arrangements in a 2nd-class, non-sleeper carriage are similar to those on a bus, with pairs of padded seats, usually recliners, all facing towards the front of the train. On 2nd-class sleeper cars, pairs of seats face one another and convert into two fold-down berths. The lower berth has more headroom than the upper berth and this is reflected in a higher fare. Children are always assigned a lower berth. Second-class carriages are found only on rapid and express trains. There are air-con and fan 2nd-class carriages.
3rd class A typical 3rd-class 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. Express trains do not carry 3rd-class carriages at all. Commuter trains in the Bangkok area are all 3rd class.
Fares are determined on a base price with surcharges added for distance, class and train type (special express, express, rapid, ordinary). Extra charges are added if the carriage has air-con and for sleeping berths (either upper or lower).
Advance bookings can be made from one to 60 days before your intended date of departure. You can make bookings in person from any train station. Train tickets can also be purchased at travel agencies, which usually add a service charge to the ticket price. If you're making an advance reservation from outside the country, contact a licensed travel agent; the SRT previously had an online ticket service but that has been discontinued.
It is advisable to make advanced bookings for long-distance sleeper trains between Bangkok and Chiang Mai, or from Bangkok to Surat Thani, as seats fill up quickly.
For short-distance trips you should purchase your ticket at least a day in advance for seats (rather than sleepers).
Partial refunds on tickets are available depending on the number of days prior to your departure that you arrange a cancellation. These arrangements can be handled at the train station booking office.
You’ll find that all train stations in Thailand have baggage-storage services (or ‘cloak rooms’). Most stations have a ticket window that will open between 15 and 30 minutes before train arrivals. There are also newsagents, small snack vendors and some full-service restaurants.