Taxis, tuk tuks, motor scooters, bicycles, songthaews, trains, buses and planes, even hire cars, they’re all great options for getting around in Thailand.
It’s a fairly large country, so don’t expect to be able to see it all on a bicycle in two or three days. In fact you are unlikely to even get a real handle on getting around in Thailand in two or three month-long holidays. But that said, it’s not a hard country to travel in, by comparison to other Asian countries like Vietnam or China.
If you’re travelling from the south (e.g. Phuket) to the centre (e.g. Bangkok) and on to the north (e.g. Chiang Mai), be ready for some airline flights. Travelling between these places by road (e.g. bus) can be a long, slow haul and it doesn’t pay to waste your precious holiday time this way.
Getting around by train
Getting around in Thailand by train is often a reasonable option as Thailand does have a well developed small gauge rail network (although most of it is single line, so there are often delays when two trains need to pass each other. Just getting into or out of Bangkok on the train can take more than an hour due to line congestion! But the trains are typically comfortable and air-conditioned and travelling in Thailand by train is much cheaper than flying.
We took a train from Malaysia up to Bangkok and it was tolerable, but it did arrive a fair bit later than it should have and getting out of Bangkok railway station without being caught up by overcharging taxi touts can be a challenge.
The main railway line runs into Thailand from Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, through Nakhon Si Thammarat, Chumpon and Hua Hin and on to Bangkok. You can connect to this train line from Phuket or Koh Samui in the regional centre of Surat Thani. The main line then runs north from Bangkok to Lop Buri, Nakhon Sawan, Phhitsanulok and on to Chiang Mai. An eastern line runs from Bangkok to Bang La and then south to Chon Buri, Bang Lamung and Sattahip. There is also an eastern rail line to Nakhon Ratchasima, Sunn and Ubon Ratchathani and a north-eastern rail line to Khon Kaen, Udon Thani and Nong Khai where you can connect to Vientiane in Laos. For more information about getting around in Thailand by inter-city train, visit Thailand by Train.
Getting around by plane
Domestic flights in Thailand are relatively cheap, especially by Western standards. This is because Thailand is well serviced by a competitive network of domestic airlines including the national carrier, Thai Airways, a boutique carrier called Bangkok Airways, a budget carrier called Nok Air and a relatively new entrant, Thai Air Asia (part owned by Air Asia in Malaysia).
A flight from Bangkok to Chiang Mai on Thai Air Asia costs about 3000B (A$100) and takes a little over an hour. A similar flight from Bangkok to Phuket costs about 2000B or less and takes about 30 minutes. It’s fast and cheap and really worth thinking about if you value your travelling time. The trick with Air Asia is to watch the “extras” – they like to charge extra for almost everything including baggage, seat allocation, meals, priority boarding, insurance, etc. It can soon make a very cheap airfare a bit less cost-effective. But if you manage your bookings carefully, getting around in Thailand on Thai Air Asia can be almost as cheap as train travel. They do sometimes cancel flights or reschedule them when there are not enough bookings, so always confirm your flights before heading to the airport. Also, be aware that November to April is peak travel season in the south of Thailand (Phuket and Ko Samui) so flights are often booked out well in advance.
Flying from the south (e.g. Surat Thani to Bangkok) can be very cheap. Booking more than two weeks in advance you can often get flights from Surat Thani to Bangkok for less than 600 Baht with Thai Air Asia (around US$20). Flying to the north you can often get fares out of Bangkok to Chiang Mai on Thai Air Asia for USD$50-60 by booking a few weeks in advance. Likewise, you can often get flights from Phuket to Chiang Mai on Thai Air Asia for less than 2000 Baht (USD$65). The only direct (non-stop) flights from Phuket to Chiang Mai are with a new carrier, Thai Smile, who charge around twice the fare of Thai Air Asia (about 6000 Baht).
But if you’re connecting through Bangkok you have to be aware that turnaround times at Don Muang domestic airport can mean you need more than 90 minutes to make your connecting flight. It can be done in less, but it’s not worth the hassle. Thai Air Asia generally don’t book through, so you’re responsible for collecting your baggage in Bangkok and checking in to your connecting flight on time.
Getting around at your destination
We like to make the most of every minute we have in Thailand, so we don’t bother wasting good time walking when you we take a tuk-tuk to most places for 30-50 Baht per trip (around US$1), or a taxi for maybe 100 Baht (US$3). We started out walking a lot and taking the Bangkok Skytrain, but once we discovered how cheap tuk-tuks and taxis really are, we started using them like everyone else. It just makes sense.
You need to be prepared to haggle a bit with the tuk-tuk drivers or you will get overcharged – but even then you’re likely to pay US$3 for a ride instead of US$1.50. It’s so cheap you have to ask yourself if it’s worth the effort of haggling. Just be careful not to accept any offers of tuk-tuk tours in Bangkok, because often this means them trotting you around all day to expensive shops where they get a commission on what you buy (see Scams in Thailand for more information).
You can easily rent scooters, motorbikes, cars or even four-wheel-drives (RVs) all over Thailand and they are reasonably cheap to rent. You typically don’t need an international drivers licence, but you will mostly be expected to leave your passport as security. We usually rent a scooter in the north or the south where the traffic is manageable and we’ve also rented cars and RVs in the north to explore the border regions at leisure. Just be careful to check your vehicle thoroughly on pickup (take photos with the date feature turned on) because some cheaper rental companies will try to get more out of you when you return the car by claiming you’ve damaged it.
Don’t bother driving in Bangkok because it’s a nightmare, but most other places are manageable. Remember that the ex-pats in Thailand say the police will always take the side of locals in an accident. And if you’ve never ridden a scooter or motorcycle in Thailand before, you need to read our 10 tips for riding a motorbike in Thailand first. Be aware that your travel insurance might not cover you if you ride a motorcycle bigger than about 150cc!
Finally, there’s always the option of the ubiquitous songthaew for getting around in Thailand. These are utility (pick-up) vehicles with a cab on the back, usually red and with two rows of bench seats. They cruise the streets of most Thai cities and towns picking people up off the side of the road and taking them where they want to go. They are part of the Thai public transport system, although privately owned and operated. They typically run a set route which is written in Thai on a sign in the front window, although in some places the colour of the songthaew is the only indication of where it’s going.
If you want to use songthaews as a way of getting around in Thailand (and they are very, very cheap), you need to flag them down as they pass you (often they’ll toot to let you know they’re coming). Check with the driver to see if he goes where you want to go, then jump in the back. There’s usually a buzzer near the rear window in the back that you press when you want to get out, although in some you might need to bang on the window. When you get out, pay the driver the fare and you’re done. Fares are usually around 10 Baht for a short trip and around 60 Baht for a longer trip (say 10-20 km).
In the more touristy areas like Bangkok and Chiang Mai, you’ll also see songthaews running around with big signs on the side advertising various tourist attractions like tiger parks and elephant camps. These are usually special destination songthaews and pick up tourists all over the city to take them to a single tourist attraction. They are also very cheap and will usually be waiting outside the attraction when you come out to take you back to your hotel.