Thailand's domestic transport system is accessible, efficient, and inexpensive. If your time is short, fly. But if you have the time to take in the countryside, travel by bus, train, or private car. Read on for details about all your transport options.
Bangkok's large domestic airport, Don Muang Airport (airport code DMK; tel. 02535-1111), may not be as glitzy as the newer Suvarnabhumi International Airport, but it still works fairly well; domestic flights depart from both airports, so make sure you go to the right one for your flight. Airports in other cities usually tend to be more basic but will have money-changing facilities, information kiosks, and waiting ground transportation. In very small towns, you'll have to arrange airport pickup either through your hotel or the airline.
Most domestic flights are on Thai Airways, part of Thai Airways International (tel. 02545-3690-92; www.thaiair.com), with Bangkok as its hub. Flights connect Bangkok with 11 domestic destinations, including Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Mae Hong Son, Phitsanulok, Krabi, and Phuket. There are also some connecting flights between these cities.
The budget subsidiary of Thai Airways, Nok Air (tel. 1318; www.nokair.com) has a head office in the Sathorn district. It operates on lesser-used routes, as does the no-frills carrier One-Two-GO (tel. 1126; www.fly12go.com), based at Asoke, in the Klong Toey district.
The growing fleet at Bangkok Airways (tel. 02265-5678, or -5555 for reservations; www.bangkokair.com) now covers 19 destinations across Asia and is the sole operator of the Phuket to Ko Samui, and Bangkok to Trat routes. It also has international flights to Singapore, Vietnam, Japan, Myanmar, Laos, China, and Cambodia, as well as to The Maldives.
Serving some northern cities, PB Air (tel. 02326-8000; www.pbair.com) is a less-well-known carrier. SGA Airways (tel. 02641-4190; www.sga.co.th) is a professional outfit using 12-seater Cessna Grand Caravan aircraft for short domestic hops from Chiang Mai up to Pai, Chiang Rai, and Mae Hong Son. Flights can be chartered for private use out of Suvarnabhumi International Airport. A small fleet of amphibious light aircraft owned by Destination Air (tel. 07632-8637; www.destinationair.com) fly out of Phuket to such nearby resorts as Krabi, Ko Phi Phi, and Ko Lanta.
Also check what's on offer from Air Asia (tel. 02515-9999 in Bangkok; www.airasia.com). They now fly between Bangkok and 10 Thai cities, as well as offering good value fares internationally.
Note that as of 2007, the 700B airport tax is now included in the price of all international air tickets, as are the domestic airport taxes.
Renting a car is easy in Thailand, but driving it is another matter. Driving in Bangkok is particularly hard; the one-way streets, poor and even incorrect road signage, and constant traffic jams prove frustrating. Outside the city, it is a better option, although Thai drivers are unashamedly reckless -- many never learned to drive, ignore basic rules, and have a total disregard for road safety. Foreign drivers must reorient themselves fast and Americans need to readjust to driving on the left.
Among the many car-rental agencies, both Avis (tel. 02255-5300; www.avisthailand.com) and Budget (tel. 02203-2094; www.budget.co.th) each have convenient offices around the country. All drivers are required to have an international driver's license. Self-drive rates start around 1,200B per day for a family-sized sedan, much more for luxury vehicles or SUVs.
Local tour operators in larger destinations, such as Chiang Mai, Phuket, or Ko Samui, will rent cars for considerably less money than the larger, more well-known agencies. Sometimes the savings are up to 50%. All companies will need to see your international driver's license and a valid credit card, in case of damage. Check insurance coverage -- if you are taken to court for an accident, you may be found guilty for not being properly covered. Don't sign unless it's included. If you're wary of driving yourself, ask about rates for a car and driver, which can be very reasonable.
Gas stations are conveniently located along highways and in towns and cities throughout the country. Esso, Shell, Caltex, and PTT all have competitive rates.
Bangkok's Hua Lamphong Railway Station is a convenient, user-friendly facility, though, as always in busy transport hubs, you should be on the alert for scams. Clear signs point the way to public toilets, coin-operated phones, the food court, and the baggage check area. A Post & Telegraph Office, information counter, police box, ATMs, and money-changing facilities are dotted around the main area. You'll find plenty of small convenience shops and a baggage check too.
From this hub, the State Railway of Thailand provides regular service to destinations as far north as Chiang Mai, northeast to Nong Khai, east to Pattaya, and south to Thailand's southern border, where it connects with Malaysia's Keretapi Tanah Melayu Berhad (KTM), with service to Penang (Butterworth), Kuala Lumpur, and Singapore. Complete schedules and fare information can be obtained at any railway station, or by calling Hua Lamphong Railway Station directly at tel. 02220-4334, or via their information hotline at tel. 1690.
The State Railway runs a number of different trains, each at a different speed, and priced accordingly. First-class sleepers usually accord an air-conditioned, two-bunk compartment with wash basin; second-class sleepers are bunks with curtains and with a ceiling fan or air-conditioning, depending on the ticket price. The fastest is the Special Express, which is the best choice for long-haul, overnight travel. These trains cut travel time by as much as 60% (though they are still slower than buses) and have sleeper cars -- which are a must for really long trips. Rapid trains (in reality, rather slow) are the next best option. Prices vary for class, from air-conditioned sleeper cars in first class to air-conditioned and fan sleepers or seats in second, on down to the straight-backed, hard seats in third class.
Warning: On trains, pay close attention to your possessions. Thievery is common on overnight trips. Also make sure if you are traveling solo that you state your sex when booking. The ticket agents won't put two strangers of opposite sexes together in first class, so don't be baffled if you are told the class is "full" when in fact there are bunks. In that case, you may have to downgrade.
Buses are the cheapest and fastest transportation to the farthest and most remote destinations in the country. However, the frequency with which wrecked buses appear on Thai news programs shows that taking the bus carries an inherent risk. If you go for it, the major choices are public or private and air-conditioned or non-air-conditioned. Longer bus trips usually depart in the evenings to arrive at their destination early in the morning. Whenever you can, opt for the VIP buses, especially for overnight trips. Some have 36 seats; better ones have 24 seats. The extra cost is well worth it for the legroom. Also, stick to government-subsidized buses operated by the Transport Company (tel. 02936-2841) from each city's proper bus terminal. Many private companies sell VIP tickets for major routes, but sometimes put you on a standard bus. Ideally, buses are best for short excursions. Longer-haul buses are an excellent value (usually less than 33B per hour of travel), but can be scary if you get a reckless driver.
Warning: When traveling by long-distance bus, do not accept drinks or snacks from fellow Thai travelers; they can be spiked. And watch your possessions closely: Thievery is common, particularly on overnight buses, when valuables are left in overhead racks.
By Taxi, Tuk-Tuk, Songtaew & Samlor
By law, taxis must charge by the meter, with a typical ride costing 100B to 200B. If you look outwardly like a tourist, a driver may try to scam you into paying a hefty fare by refusing to use the meter. Get out and find a new taxi if that happens; and avoid stationary taxis (usually parked next to expensive hotels), as these tend to be the scam artists. Note that if you're journeying to a remote part of town, a taxi driver may refuse you, especially when it's coming up to a shift change (3-4pm) or if the traffic is bad.
If you don't speak any Thai, you'll be lucky to find a tuk-tuk ride for less than 50B, even for the shortest hops. Be sure to bargain hard with these guys, and don't let 'em take you for a ride (in other words, on shopping trips or to massage parlors). In most provincial areas and resort islands, small pickup trucks called songtaews cruise the main streets offering communal taxi service at cheap, set fees. As with tuk-tuks, always remember to agree on your fare before engaging a driver.
The samlor (literally "three wheels") is a dying breed of pedal-powered transport -- a bicycle taxi that is often referred to as a pedicab or trishaw; the rider pulls passengers along behind him in a covered seat, and this type of transport is most commonly seen laden with shopping from local markets. Some hotels organize sightseeing tours by samlor, but otherwise they are rarely used by visitors. Motorized three-wheel vehicles, such as tuk-tuks, are also sometimes called samlors.
Note: Few taxi, tuk-tuk, songtaew, or samlor drivers speak even basic English, so have a copy of your hotel's name, street address, and district written in Thai with you at all times.
A small tip is usually expected, though of course it is up to you. Because many taxi or tuk-tuk drivers claim to have no change, don't leave your hotel without some small bills.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.