May 4, 2012

Planes, Trains, & Songthaews - Thailand Transportation

Taxi with flat tire on the highway at 4am.

I settled into my plush reclining seat on an extra large VIP bus heading south to Bangkok from Chiang Rai for a 12-hour journey. Suddenly a huge burst from the right side of the bus left us swerving back and forth at high speed on the highway while the top heavy automobile teeter tottered back and forth signifying a potential flip. The smell of burnt rubber indicated exactly what occurred, but as I’m holding on for dear life my first selfish thought was, “Can we please come to a safe stop because I’m afraid of dying alone.”
Seeing I’m the only English speaker and non-Thai person on this bus, I doubt anyone is going to hold my hand and pray with me. My attention quickly focused on the teenage mother and baby sitting a seat over from me and I decided I’d sacrifice myself to save them. At least I’m doing a good deed before we go down. Only a half hour on the dot from the time we pulled out from Bus Terminal 2 in Chiang Rai did we get a flat tire. I knew I headed to Bangkok a day early for a reason. Eventually, the bus safely landed on the median and I took a massive sigh of relief.
After sitting on the side of the road for an hour, I loaded a bus that paled in comparison. A Thai toddler sitting in front of me reclined her chair basically in my lap and stared at me while flopping her blanket on my computer screen as I tried to enjoy my True Blood Vampire series which is the only thing at this point keeping me sane. My mood went from elated to deflated in record time. 
I enjoy the transition from place to place – riding ferries, trains, buses (sometimes) are some of my favorite times during travel. Many people disagree but I enjoy staring out the window, listening to music, seeing the countryside pass through the glass, and having sometimes life changing conversations with people you didn’t know existed 10 minutes prior. Transportation in Thailand is easy but its unreliability is notorious. Note to self if traveling, plan ahead if your schedule is tight.

Here are some of the main modes of transportation you’ll see in Thailand:

Tuk-tuk in Ayutthaya. Holds 1-6 people.
Tuk-tuk drivers are notorious for ripping people off, even locals. If you need to take a tuk-tuk always cut the price in half of what they offer and give a chuckle like you can’t believe their price offer. They’ll try to get as much out of you as they can and if you let them, you’ll be out of money fast!

Song Thaew
All the luggage you see was piled on top of this song thaew. 
One step above a tuk-tuk, still very cheap but usually made for longer trips like to an attraction in the city you’re visiting. It’s like a mini-pickup truck with two benches in the bed. 

Yellow Power Ranger on motorbike.
As you probably know, motorbikes are everywhere in Asian countries. They’re cheap, easy and with no emission controls policies the small motorbikes are actually the best option for the environment.

Minibuses are found everywhere and can actually be a better option if you’re traveling light. The prices are fair, there’s AC, and you don’t have to make tons of stops so you get to your destination in a shorter time.

Long tail boat
Skinny wooden boats with loud motors.
Short distances in the water from beach to beach that cant be reached by land or from islands that are near by you will always take a long tail boat. These are usually wooden with a smoky motor and colorful leis draped on the bow.

Ferry ride from Surat Thani to Koh Samui.
Getting to and from the various islands in Thailand is sure to guarantee you a ferry ride, my personal favorite. Some are small and don’t have any chairs and some ferries are large enough to fit cars on and you’ll want to stay for days.


Overnight train from BKK to Chiang Mai.
Train is free for locals so I hate to say this but if you’re going a town over by train where there aren’t any classes, you’ll be sitting next to someone who may not even have a home. I’ve taken the train many times when I was in Ayutthaya. Vendors hop on and off the train constantly to sell food, fruit, drinks, and soup. The night train however, is a different story. Going from Bangkok to Chiang Mai is a comfortable experience in a sleeper cart.

Do’s and Don’ts of Transportation in Thailand:
I shouldn't have to say this, but don't travel with a family of 4 on a motorbike.

  1. DO keep your valuables with you. Never pack them in your main pack and store on the bottom of the bus or top of a song thaew, etc.
  2. DON’T be in a rush to get to your destination because according to Thai time you will be running late.
  3. DO pack snacks and food on long train or bus rides because you never know when or where you’ll arrive.
  4. DON’T get in a taxi in Bangkok unless he’s running the meter. Ask him to turn it on before you jump in.
  5. DO bargain with a tuk-tuk driver because 10 times out of 10, they are trying to rip you off.
  6. My exhaust pipe burn.  That's gonna leave a mark!
    DON’T get off on the right side of a motorbike because you’ll be left with a burn on your calf. I know from experience.
  7. DO wear layers in a minibus or train because you’ll be pouring sweat outside but then freeze inside.
  8. DON’T forget your motion sickness pills for long curvy bus rides in the north or long ferry rides.
  9. DO book long distance trains a few days in advance to guarantee a good cabin.
  10. DON’T rent a motorbike without insurance (usually 2 USD) or ride without a helmet.

    Elephant is still a popular way to get around in Thailand.


  1. Great post! I'll be heading into Thailand shortly, so I the practical tips are especially useful!

    The stuff people fit onto their mopeds is jaw-dropping. It's the same in Vietnam!

  2. Thanks Ciaran! I hope you have a great time in Thailand. Hopefully my tips will come in handy. I will be in Vietnam in a few weeks so you'll have to give me some advice! Thanks for dropping a comment!

  3. nice post.this pics are most beautiful and gauges. i have much experience to travel in limousine car. Limousine are the most great full car for a long drive.

  4. This blog is awesome such a beautiful Thailand pics.A first impression is important. Limousine service says class, style and sophistication.