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Getting Around Thailand: Transportation Tips

You’ll find a real gamut of transportation options in Thailand, from Bangkok’s modern Skytrain system to tuk-tuks, with plenty of options in between. While the traffic in Bangkok can be wretched, rural areas still offer generally good roads with zero snarl. So be flexible, and hop the tuk-tuk, subway, taxi, ferry, bus, train or plane that will best get you where you want to go. There’s plenty to explore!

Citizens of the U.S. and many other countries don’t need an advance visa to enter Thailand, but make sure that your passport is valid for at least six months. If you enter the country by air, tourists are permitted a 30-day stay; if you enter by land, it’s a 15-day stay.

Thais like to travel during their national holidays, such as Lunar New Year and Songkran, so if you’re going to be in the country during a major holiday, plan your Thailand transportation options well in advance. Read on to learn more about getting around Thailand.

Flying to and Around Thailand

Bangkok is an excellent Southeast Asian hub, served by upwards of 70 different airlines, including a number of budget operators (see links below). Chances are you’ll land at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport (BKK), but the country is home to several other international airports, with Phuket (HKT), Chiang Mai (CNX), Hat Yai (HDY) and Koh Samui (USM) also being popular for arrivals from outside Thailand.

There are numerous domestic airports that serve commercial passengers, but to reach many of them you’ll need to travel through one of the major airports above.

Bangkok is served by two airports. Suvarnabhumi flights tend to be international (with some exceptions). Don Mueang (DMK) plays host primarily to domestic flights and budget airlines.

Suvarnabhumi (pronounced “Sue-wanna-poom”) is a dazzling, modern airport, with examples of Thai art scattered throughout. Be prepared for a potentially long wait at immigration, particularly if many planes have landed at the same time as yours. If you want to avoid traffic jams in central Bangkok, consider arriving and departing late at night or on a Sunday morning.

You’ll find taxi queues right outside the airport. It’s a good idea to print out a map of your destination with the name of your hotel and directions in Thai. (Many hotels have them on their websites.) For a smooth, fast ride, pay a little extra for your driver to take the toll highway.

You can also connect to the city via the Airport Link, which operates trains to either the Phetchaburi MRT (subway) station or to the Phaya Thai BTS (Skytrain) station. Note that these lines only run from 6 a.m. to midnight. There are also buses and public vans that will get you into Bangkok.

Don Mueang Airport served the city before Suvarnabhumi was built. It’s home to some of the area’s budget airlines and is more bare-bones in terms of decor and services.

You can get from Don Mueang to the city via taxi or opt for an air-conditioned airport bus; there are two routes that go to different BTS/Skytrain stations or the Northeastern Bus Terminal. It’s also possible to take a commuter train that connects with the MRT subway system, but delays are frequent, so we don’t recommend that option.

If you’re flying within Thailand or heading to other countries in Southeast Asia, be very careful to go to the right airport. Double-check your ticket, and don’t assume that every international flight will be from Suvarnabhumi and every domestic flight will be out of Don Mueang. There is a free hourly shuttle bus that runs between the two airports throughout most of the day.


Thailand by Train

With so many budget airlines to choose from, we suggest flying in Thailand whenever possible. But if you’re a train buff, the country has nearly 2,500 miles of rail lines that will get you from Bangkok to Chiang Mai or Surat Thani (the jumping-off point for Koh Samui) or even to the Lao, Cambodian and Malay borders.

Traveling by train can take longer than bus travel, and it can be more expensive, but the Thai tourism office advises that trains are safer than buses, and they’re more comfortable too. Trains are generally clean and in good repair. There are four types of trains: Ordinary (local), Rapid, Express and Special Express — listed in order of increasing speed and comfort.

Long-distance Thai trains typically have three classes of service:

– First Class offers private cabins with convertible beds and a private sink; on most routes, it includes air conditioning.

– Second Class offers multiple choices: book a sleeper fare and you’ll get a fold-down bed with privacy curtains, which is placed along a corridor (the lower berths are larger and more comfortable, but more expensive); book a seated fare and you’ll forgo the bed. Some cars are air-conditioned, but others have only fans.

– Third Class cars have bench seating that can range from wooden slats to padded seats; these cars are usually not air-conditioned.

It’s important to beware of holiday periods and to book berths on overnight trains as soon as possible. You can’t buy train tickets directly online, but agents like Asia Discovery will purchase them for you at the station and deliver them to your home or hotel. Some tickets can be purchased as many as 60 days in advance, while others can only be purchased 30 days in advance. Of course, you can also buy tickets in person at train stations.

For a luxury train experience, there’s the private E&O Express (named after the famous Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang, Malaysia) that does one-way trips between Bangkok and Singapore plus a loop from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and back, with stops and tours along the way.


Thailand by Bus

Buses crisscross Thailand and come in a variety of comfort options, from basic and non-air-conditioned to more luxurious “VIP” buses that even include a meal at rest stops. Pattaya, Trat, Hua Hin, Cha-Am, Ayutthaya and Kanchanaburi are all popular destinations that can be reached by bus — but you can also travel as far as Malaysia, Laos and Cambodia by bus.

Types of buses include Local, Express (don’t be fooled, they’re slow and cheap), Second Class (some have air conditioning), First Class (all have air conditioning), VIP and Super-VIP. As the levels go up, amenities increase and the number of passengers carried decreases, making for a more comfortable ride. The VIP-level buses have reclining seats, bottled water, a toilet and monitors with movies or karaoke (beware if you’re planning to sleep; they can be loud). The more basic buses are operated by the government’s BKS system, but the VIP buses are privately run. Some of the more reputable VIP companies include Nakhon Chai Air, the Transport Company and Green Bus Company.

In Bangkok, there are three different long-distance bus stations, depending on which direction you’re traveling: the Eastern Bus Terminal; the Central, Northeast and Northern Bus Terminal; and the Southern Bus Terminal.

Locals recommend that you purchase your ticket at a bus station, since there are some scams being pulled by touts and travel agencies — particularly in the popular backpacker areas in Bangkok. Government regulations now require that riders on inter-provincial buses and public vans wear seatbelts, so buckle up!


Traveling by Ferry in Thailand

Although ferries are a popular way of getting to islands like Koh Samui, Koh Phi Phi and Koh Lanta, there has been a series of ferry accidents throughout the years that may make you think twice about taking one. Many are related to overcrowded boats capsizing. Ferries are run by private operators, so the quality and safety may vary from place to place.

If you’re traveling locally, you may have no choice. But for trips to destinations like Koh Samui, there are budget airfares from Bangkok that land you right on the island. In some instances (Koh Lanta, for example), you can get to the island by land and bridge. Of course, in that instance the best alternative depends on how safe your driver is.


Renting a Car in Thailand

We wouldn’t recommend getting behind the wheel in the congested Bangkok or Chiang Mai city centers, but in other areas renting a car is an interesting option if you like exploring on your own. Just be aware that Thais drive British-style, on the left-hand side of the road, with the driver sitting on the right side of the car.

All the major rental companies operate in Thailand, including Avis, Budget, National, Sixt and Hertz. There are also numerous Thai rental firms.

You may be able to get away with just using your regular driver’s license, but if you’re renting from a local agency, you might be asked for an International Driving Permit, which can be obtained from AAA offices in the U.S.

You’re typically not allowed to drive a rental car from another country into Thailand. Check with your rental car company for any other restrictions, such as rules against driving on unpaved roads or beaches.

You’ll also find motorcycles or scooters available for rent in some locations, particularly on the islands. It’s typical for local rental shops to require you to leave your passport when renting a scooter. Be sure to wear a helmet (it’s the law) and drive very carefully. According to Tourism Thailand, motorbike accidents are the top cause of deaths of foreigners in Thailand, and the roads on Koh Samui and Koh Phangan can be particularly dangerous.


Getting Around by Local Transportation

Bangkok offers many transportation options. The Skytrain (also known as the BTS) glides around above the fray and is the best, most efficient way to avoid Bangkok’s traffic nightmares. There is usually at least one escalator that takes you up to the platform at each stop. On the platform you’ll find automatic ticket machines and a manned window where you can get change for bills. The Skytrain cars are blissfully air-conditioned and will whisk you to the river, where you can switch to a local ferry if you’re interested in visiting sights (like the Royal Palace) that aren’t near a Skytrain stop. You can buy single-fare tickets, or pay extra for a loaded card. We highly recommend that you choose a hotel in close proximity to a Skytrain stop.

Bangkok also has a subway system, the MRT. It’s just as clean, modern and efficient as the Skytrain, but we find that it travels to less important destinations for tourists — and it has far fewer stops. Here too you can purchase tickets from automated machines at the stations. The Skytrain and MRT connect at the Asok stop.

The Chao Phraya Express boats ply the busy river that cuts through the city’s center. There are several routes, with some boats hitting all the stops and others hitting only a few. You can buy tickets at the main piers or onboard. The ferry system connects with the Skytrain at the Saphan Taksin stop, where there’s a major ferry dock and ticket sales booth (there are also some commercial boats that operate here, so take a minute to sort it all out). The boats aren’t air-conditioned, but it’s cooler on the water. We highly recommend that you take a ride on the river at least once during your trip. Watch for devout passengers bowing to the wats on the river’s edge as they pass by.

Buses connect to all the other local transportation systems, and come in different levels of comfort, with pricing to match. For air conditioning, choose an orange or new yellow bus. You can purchase tickets onboard, and drivers make change.

Taxis are reasonable here, but the time it takes to get around in one is completely unreasonable. You’ll find taxis at major sites and businesses can also call them for you. Chances are, if your hotel calls one, it will be a bit more expensive because the hotel gets a kickback — so try flagging one on your own if you’re on a budget. Always take a card from your lodging that has a map, address and phone in Thai. Some hotels are tucked away and it’s not unusual for a driver to have to call for directions. Most taxis are air-conditioned, but make sure it’s working before committing. Also check that the driver turns on the meter when you enter the cab, and get out if he or she refuses. If your driver has been nice, and the traffic has been nasty, be sure to leave a big tip.

Tuk-tuks are the motorized trishaws that dart around the city in daredevil fashion. They can get you somewhere faster than a taxi, but you’ll have to face heat, pollution and risk of death in the process. We only recommend them for short hops. Be sure to bargain and set a price before getting in; they can actually be more expensive than taxis.

Motorcycle taxis are just what they sound like. You hop onto a motorcycle or scooter behind the driver and away you go. Drivers tend to congregate in areas around the Skytrain stops or shopping zones, and usually wear brightly colored vests with numbers on them. As with tuk-tuks, set a price before getting on.

Most hotels and tour operators can set you up with a car and driver, if you prefer that route. Hotels also often offer airport pick-up service, but it will cost more than a taxi.

Chiang Mai has local bus service, but in most other locations tuk-tuks or songthaew (pick-up trucks with facing benches in the back and a roof overhead) will be the main means of getting around. Some songthaew operate like taxis, but others follow a particular route, picking people up and dropping them off along the way — and still others practice a hybrid of both. Tell or show the driver where you want to go, and confirm the price before you get aboard.


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