Travelling in Thailand FAQ

Getting around is easy and cheap, but safety standards may not match what you're used to
Travelling in Thailand FAQ

What's the best way of getting about in Thailand ?

If you're not on a tight budget, then internal flights are probably best. Thai Airways (known as THAI) is the main domestic carrier, and it has a good reputation. Flights are relatively cheap by international standards e.g Bangkok - Chiang Mai, a distance of 570km, costs 1650B (approx US$40). Bangkok Airways is the other main domestic airline, but it's comfort and efficiency are definitely below those of THAI. They service some of the routes not flown by THAI, the main one is the very overpriced Bangkok - Ko Samui flight.

Thai trains are highly rated by visitors, as they are efficient, safe, relatively cheap by international standards (though not compared to Thai buses) and comfortable. Tickets are available in third class (hard wooden seats), second class, second class sleeper, and first class (private cabin). You also have the option of fans or air-conditioning, and of normal, rapid or express trains. Most people prefer the sleeper beds on a long journey, as these are comfortable and good value. First class is a lot more expensive than second, but there's little to justify the difference and the cabin can get very cold with the air-conditioning. The price is not far off that of a flight.

The main problem with the trains is that they don't cover the country comprehensively and they are slow, even the 'express' trains. A bus is typically two or three hours quicker on a long overnight trip. You can get meals on the trains, but they are way overpriced (hawkers bring food and drink on to the train at stops, which can be quite good). Take warm clothing if you're going in an air-conditioned compartment as it's set too cold, the fan compartment are cheaper and generally better (the windows are often left open all night to keep it cool, which works quite well).

Long distance government buses are of varying standards, from the ordinary buses (which are cramped and uncomfortable) to the VIP ones (lots of space, aircon, toilet, TV, blankets, often free food and drink). VIP buses are quick, and can be quite a bit cheaper than a sleeper train (especially if you're paying supplements for an express train with air-conditioning.). On long distance trips, they'll stop a couple of times at remote restaurants which are okay for getting something to eat. The disadvantages is that it's not as comfortable as a sleeper compartment in a train, and it's statistically not as safe. Overall, they're quite a good option but many foreigners seem to avoid them. This is perhaps because it can be quite an effort getting to the government bus terminals, especially in Bangkok. They also have to compete against the many private services, which are invariably located very close to hotels and guesthouses.

There are plenty of private transport companies which are often used by visitors, but these are generally by far the worst option for getting about. They are around the same price as the government buses, but often operate cramped, uncomfortable minibuses and suicidal drivers. This is especially the cases of the companies located in very touristy areas (e.g. Khao San road), as they don't need to rely on return business. There are some private companies who operate services from the government bus stations, and these are generally of an equivalent standard to the government buses.

Is renting a car/motorbike and driving in Thailand a good idea ?

In provincial Thailand, hiring a car can be a good and relatively cheap way of getting about. Hiring a car with a driver/guide is marginally more expensive, but is perhaps a better idea as it will mean avoiding all the problems associated with driving yourself about. Avis, Hertz and other international car hire agencies are well represented in Thailand, and there are also many local companies about. The local companies are always cheaper, but have the disadvantage that the cars may not be properly insured (even if they tell you otherwise). Your insurance from home might not cover being involved in an accident from renting a car/motorbike, so it's worth checking that before you leave.

One way rental is a possibility with bigger companies but expect it to cost a lot more. It's a good idea to always fill up the tank before you bring the car back too, as petrol is cheap and the fee you would otherwise be charged is expensive.

You are almost always asked to leave your passport as a deposit for any vehicle that you want to rent, but there is obviously a risk in doing this. If you negotiate, some places will let you leave travellers cheques or cash instead (local hire firms are generally more flexible than international ones). Bear in mind that if you have any sort of problem and have left your passport, you will be in a very weak position when it comes to negotiating how much the damage costs. Your embassy and/or the police may be able to help you, but don't count on it.

Check a vehicle thoroughly before hiring it as they are not always in pristine condition, particularly the cheaper ones. Point out any existing damage or scratches before you hire, or don't be surprised when they try to charge you for them later.

Most of the roads and highways are in good condition, and have two or three lanes on each side. Be aware that the bigger vehicle has right of way on Thai roads, and so be prepared to get out of the way quickly if there is a large truck behind you. Passing on blind corners is not uncommon. Most road signs are written in Thai and English, though some are only in Thai (like 'Stop' and 'Give Way'). Buy a decent road map before you set off, and remember that Thai words aren't always romanised consistently (e.g. Petburi road and Phetchaburi road are one and the same). Driving at night is not a good idea, as many of the truck and bus drivers are overworked and forced to drive throughout the night - and resort to using amphetamines (yah-bah in Thai) to keep themselves awake.

For most people, hiring a car and driving yourself about in Bangkok would be little short of a nightmare. The traffic is some of the worst in the world, roads are confusingly signed and some of the driving standards exhibited are questionable to say the least. Hiring a car with a driver or using taxis would be a much better idea.

Hiring a motorbike is quite a common activity, particularly on the southern islands and in some of the northern towns. Especially in the north, this is a great way to get out into the countryside to see the 'real' Thailand. It's possible to hire in Bangkok too, but inadvisable unless you are a very experienced rider - accidents are all too common.

Places such as Ko Samui and Pattaya have a lot of foreigners renting motorbikes who have never ridden one before, which can make for hazardous driving conditions. Expect to be stopped at least once by the Thai police if you do a lot of riding, as you are technically breaking the law if you:

  • Don't have a valid international driving license, with motorcycle entitlement.
  • Don't have a valid health insurance policy.
  • Aren't wearing a helmet.
  • Don't carry your passport around with you at all times - this is obviously a bit of a problem if you left it as a deposit

If you are stopped, the policeman is likely using one of these rules as an excuse to extract a bribe, normally around 200B or so but it can potentially be very expensive depending on your situation. Paying up is the best course of action, as you really will be in trouble if you end up being taken to the police station.

Some of the roads on Ko Samui and Ko Pha-Ngan are very dangerous, particularly the road from Thong Sala to Hat Rin on Ko Pha-Ngan. Be careful, as accidents in this area are very, very common - the number one cause of deaths of foreigners in Thailand. If you've never ridden before, some of these roads really aren't the best places to learn.

If you have to misfortune to get into an accident, it's likely to be judged as your fault (even if it wasn't) and you will be expected to pay for any damage caused (to vehicles and people) there and then. If someone is injured, the asking amount will be increased to cover the treatment costs - these amounts are definitely up for negotiation, strange as it may seem. Any serious injuries and deaths will definitely involve the police being called - you may still be able to get out of trouble by paying enough money, but it's not certain.

If you plan on driving in Thailand, bring both an international driving license and your home driving license. You won't (usually) be asked for either of them by the renting companies, but having both will likely be a great help should you happen to get into any legal difficulties.

Is it safe to leave my luggage while I'm on a sleeper train ?

Theft on the sleeper trains is pretty rare - and sadly enough it's more likely to be perpetrated by fellow tourists than the Thais. Luggage is stored on racks in the corridor just outside your sleeping berth, and it's a good idea to lock your bag and use a small chain to attach it the rack if you're worried. It also might be a good idea to keep smaller and most valuable things inside with you.

Is the upper or lower berth better on sleeper trains ?

The lower berth is slightly longer and wider, and if you're tall this is the one to go for. It costs 50B more than the upper berth.

Do I need to make reservations for buses / trains ?

For the long-distance buses, it's okay to turn up at the bus station at pretty much any time. Chances are that the bus you want will be leaving within half an hour, and will have free seats. Same day reservations are often okay for trains, but during busier tourist periods (November - February, August) you may need to book a couple of days in advance. Train reservations can be made directly from the station, or from any travel agent who will generally charge 100/200B for doing it.

Try and avoid traveling from Bangkok during Thai public holidays, as the trains will be fully booked and the bus stations are chaotic. This is especially true during the Songkran festival (mid-April).

Should I get a rail pass in advance ?

No, this will not save you any money or get any other benefits.

If I can't speak or read Thai, how will I know when to get off on a government bus / train ?

On the buses, your destination is often the last stop so this is rarely a problem. If it's not the last stop, then the conductor or another passenger will invariably tell you.

On the trains, if you're going to a popular tourist destination (Chiang Mai, Surat Thani) then it's easy. An train official will always come round and tell you, every other tourist will get off and touts will be running alongside the train holding signs promoting their accommodation outside the windows before the train has even stopped ! If you're going somewhere less touristy then you might want to ask someone and/or make sure the ticket collector knows where you are going.

If you need them, the Thai phrases are pretty easy:

tee nee tee nai (krap/ka) ? Where is this ?
tee nee...mai (krap/ka) ? Is this... ?

A more tricky one is:
chuay bork meu-rai rao mah teung... Please tell me when me get to....

What are the boats to the islands like ?

In good weather they are fine, but in rough weather the ride can be a bit turbulent. Tthey are often very overcrowded in the tourist season, and you may want to think twice about getting on in poor weather. Sinkings are rare but not unknown.

The riskiest trip seems to be the long journey out to Ko Tao, which it is definitely inadvisable to take in adverse conditions.

What's the best way to get about in Bangkok ?

See the Bangkok section for information on this:

What's Thai Airways (THAI) like as an international / domestic airline ?

Thai Airways is well regarded as an international carrier for friendly service and for having good leg-room in Economy class. Prices tend to be at the high end of the market.

Domestic flights are also very good, cheap and safe. The standard is perhaps not up to what you would get on international flights, as the best stewardess, planes etc are promoted to the international routes.

Nevertheless, 2001 has not been Thai Airways finest year by a long way. They are rumoured to be some US$2bn in debt and chairman Virabongsa Ramangkura has warned they may go under by 2004 if nothing is done. On March 3rd 2001, a domestic flight due to carry Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his son from Bangkok to Chiang Mai exploded at Don Muang only minutes before they was due to board it. An investigate report later concluded it was an accident caused by a malfunctioning air-con unit. In May, Thaksin publically declared that business and first class in THAI 'sucks', and that he would not fly it at all if he had any choice. In September, the entire board resigned under pressure from Thaksin and a series of bomb hoaxes (believed to an inside job related to a bitter dispute between the pilots, cabin crew and the trade unions.)

Though it remains very unlikely that THAI would be allowed to collapse (it is 90% state owned and would be propped up by the government), you would be wise to keep up to date with the current situation before booking any tickets.

How can I get into Laos from Thailand ?

The main way of doing this is from the border crossing at Nong Khai in Thailand, to the Lao capital Vientiane. Overnight trains and buses run from Bangkok to Nong Khai, and from here you have to get a bus to the Friendship bridge spanning the Mekong. After that it's about 45 minutes taxi journey to Vientiane. You can get a visa at the border, which costs US$30.

Can I travel overland between Thailand and Burma (Myanmar) ?

It's possible to enter into Burma for day trips or slightly longer overland from Thailand, but not yet to continue on to Yangon, Mandalay etc...Day trips are possible at the Mae Sai / Tachilek border (north of Chiang Rai), Ranong and the Three Pagodas Pass (west of Kanchanaburi). These may be shut during periods of diplomatic unrest between Thailand and Burma, but are often reopened fairly quickly. You don't need to obtain a visa in advance for these, but have to pay US$5 at Mae Sai and US$10 at thr Three Pagodas Pass.

Can I travel overland between Thailand and Cambodia ?

The main border crossing points between Thailand and Cambodia are at Aranya Pathet / Poipet, and at Trat / Koh Kong. There are frequent buses to the Thai border, and Cambodian buses then take you from the border to Phnom Penh, Siem Reap etc...The roads in Cambodia are in a very poor condition, and can be impassable during the rainy season (August - November). Visas can be got at the Poipet and Koh Kong border crossings for US$20, and are valid for 30 days.


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