Thailand’s domestic transport system is accessible, generally efficient, and inexpensive. A robust network of domestic flights (from Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi International Airports, as well as other Thai cities) and an onslaught of budget airline carriers make air travel a breeze. But if you have the time to take in the countryside, travel by bus, train, private car, or for the really adventurous, by motorcycle.
In our travels, we have found the English-language website 12Go (www.12go.asia/en) to be an invaluable one-stop resource for booking travel. Their website compares timetables and pricing, allowing you to choose the best option for your schedule and budget. For example, a search from Bangkok to Chiang Mai instantly priced out VIP buses, coach buses, overnight sleeper train cars, flights, and even private cabs. Ferry pricing and schedules are included when applicable. Handy icons indicate amenities, like air-con, food, on-board stewards, and TVs. The peer reviews on the site are also helpful.
To book domestic flights, Skyscanner (www.skyscanner.net) and Momondo (www.momondo.com) typically outperform the competition by including a larger number of Asian budget carriers in their search results.
Flights from Bangkok depart from Suvarnabhumi Airport and Don Muang Airport, so make sure which one you’re headed for, as they are a long way apart. Airports outside of Bangkok, Phuket, and Chiang Mai usually tend to be more basic but will have necessities such as money-changing facilities, information kiosks, and waiting ground transportation.There are heaps of domestic flights on Thai Airways (www.thaiairways.com; tel. 02356-1111), with Bangkok as its hub. Flights connect Bangkok with such popular domestic destinations as Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Ko Samui, Krabi, and Phuket. There are also connecting flights between these cities.
Bangkok Airways (www.bangkokair.com; tel. 1177) flies to more than two dozen destinations across Asia and domestically is the sole operator of the Phuket to Ko Samui and Bangkok to Trat routes.
The budget subsidiary of Thai Airways, Nok Air (www.nokair.com; tel. 1318) services more than two dozen spots in Thailand and they offer easy to book ‘fly and ferry’ combos to beach locations like Koh Lipe and Koh Phi Phi from Bangkok. Another budget option is AirAsia (www.airasia.com; tel. 02515-9999 in Bangkok). They travel across Thailand from Bangkok’s Don Mueang and offer good-value fares internationally. Pro Tip: While appealing at first glance, especially if you’ll be traveling in Asia for several weeks, AirAsia’s Asean Pass is a headache-inducing service and not worth your money.
With most budget airlines, you’ll need to pre-pay for checked luggage to avoid steep fees (and delays) at the airport. Normally, the fee for checking bags is cheaper when done in advance.
By Car or Motorbike
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.
The usual multinational chains have convenient offices around the country.In theory, drivers are required to have an international driver’s license, but this is rarely enforced. Gas stations are conveniently located along major roads throughout the country. Esso, Shell, Caltex, and PTT all have competitive rates and are full-service. Say “top up” while raising your palm upwards to request a full tank.
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%. 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. How reasonable? About 3,200B will pay for a car, driver, gas, tolls and parking for 10 hours; five hours is usually 2,200B. These are the rates for Bangkok, so booking this type of service in areas like Isan and Chiang Rai should be cheaper. And the fees end here. If the driver has to stay overnight, his expenses usually come out of the rates listed above.
In towns like Chiang Mai, Pai, Phuket, or Ko Samui, motorbike rentals are cheap and found on nearly every street corner. There are plenty of rental shops in Bangkok, but I strongly advise against renting a motorbike unless you’re a very skilled driver with lots of patience for traffic and chaos. Typically, rentals cost 200 to 450 baht per day and include helmets, which have been used by other sweaty riders many times before. Scooter pricing is based on engine sizes, which typically range from 110 to 150cc. If your goal is casual cruising around town, a smaller bike will do the job and, for more inexperienced riders, a smaller engine will be a smoother ride and easier to handle. When venturing into more mountainous regions, you’ll want more pep in your step, so opt for the 150cc models, especially if you’ll be carrying a passenger. Be sure to test drive rentals for comfort and confidence. It’s not uncommon for rental shops to request to keep your passport in lieu of a deposit.
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. Ticket windows open at least 15 minutes before the first trains of the day depart.
From this hub, the State Railway of Thailand (www.railway.co.th) 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 on the SRT website.
Reservations can be made 60 days before departure at any train station or local travel agency. Agencies normally add a service charge to the price of the ticket, but often the convince factor outweighs the additional cost. To book long-distance tickets prior to arrival in Thailand, email your request to SRT (email@example.com), and they will email confirmation so you can pick up tickets at the departure station.
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
In 2018, Uber sold its Southeast Asian operations to GrabTaxi (www.grabtaxi.com), an Uber-like smartphone app that partners with local taxis, cars, and even motorbikes. Prices are known to be nominally higher (between 10 and 60 baht) but that price bump is outweighed by convenience, since many taxi drivers speak little English, which eliminates any price negotiation. Surge pricing goes into effect when demand is high (often when it rains) making this a pretty pricy transportation option then.
By law, taxis must charge by the meter and the flag fare is 35B. However, outside Bangkok they rarely use them, so you’ll need to negotiate upfront. Farang passengers, essentially any non-Thai, are likely to be scammed at least once during a trip to Thailand, so adopt the laidback Thai attitude of mai pen rai, or no worries, and don’t lose your cool. The most common annoyance is refusing to use the meter or claiming that it’s broken. Get out and find a new taxi if that happens. A taxi driver often refuse crosstown trips, 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.