By bus, bike, train, plane, tuk-tuk, minivan, elephant, boat…
Transport in Thailand is easy, cheap and exciting. There's a huge range of different options, and each has its own appeal. For long-distance travel, domestic flights are fast, while train journeys are slow but scenic. City travel involves everything for buses and bikes to tuk-tuks and skytrains; and to explore Thailand's jungles, ruins and national parks, you could travel by bike, elephant or on foot.
To help you find the best way to get about, I've created this mini guide.
Domestic flights are the fastest way to cover long distances – in the most extreme cases, a journey that might take two days by bus could take an hour by aeroplane. Direct flights operate between many cities, and some routes involve a changeover in Bangkok or Chiang Mai.
Planes range from large to minute. Small aircraft more common in remote areas – last year, I flew between Nan Province and Chiang Mai on a nine-seater plane. I sat directly behind the pilot, and my safety card was tucked into the back of his seat!
How to book a flight
Seats do sell out, so book as early as possible. Holiday companies can book flights on your behalf; you can use local travel agencies in Thailand; or all the major airlines have online booking systems:
- Thai Airways: thaiairways.com
- Bangkok Airways: bangkokair.com
- Air Asia: airasia.com
- Nok Air: nokair.com
Buses in Thailand
Thailand's extensive bus network is great for getting around cities, between towns or for travelling the length and breadth of the country. There's a huge range of price options, from cheap-as-chips state-run buses, to luxurious private coaches with air conditioning, toilets and reclining seats.
Second Class public buses are very common across Thailand. Marked with a number 2, they are cheap, busy and make lots of stops. To catch one, head to a bus station, stand at a bus stop, or wave one down en route. Fares are taken after you sit down, or when you get off.
For day-long or overnight buses, the most comfortable options are 1st class, VIP and Super VIP coaches. These should all be booked ahead, with timetables and information available at bus terminals. You can also book and check information by phone, through a hotel, travel agency, or online:
- Thai Ticket Major: thaiticketmajor.com
- Nakhon Chai: nca.co.th
- Sombat Tour: sombattour.com
- Green Bus, Chiang Mai: greenbusthailand.com
Thailand's trains tend to be more comfortable than buses. Although not fast, many journeys are incredibly scenic – the most stunning train journey I took in Thailand last year was on the restored Thailand to Burma railway line.
Four main lines serve Thailand's major urban areas, with smaller branches heading further afield. Remote areas, like Nan Province, don't have any train stations at all but are linked by train stations in neighbouring provinces by buses.
Prices depend on the speed of the train and the class you travel in – the slowest trains cost less than travelling the same distance by bus. "Special Express" trains are the fastest; and second-class seats are more comfortable than third class, which are wooden rather than padded.
If you'd like a bed for overnight travel, book a berth. Second-class berths convert into bunks, and first-class berths have air-con and a washbasin. Most trains have dining carts.
How to book a train
It's best to book at least one day before you want to travel, or as early as possible for sleeper trains. In high season, most seats are fully booked well in advance. You can check timetables and book through an agent, at any train station, or online at:
Shared taxis, minibuses and songthaews
Particularly common in Southern Thailand, shared taxis and minibuses are an easy way to travel between towns. Some follow timetables but most just wait until they're full.
Songthaews are creatively converted pick-up trucks or vans with two benches for passengers. In towns, most songthaews leave from the market place, or you can flag one down en route. Hop off wherever you like.
In peak months, private ferries travel regularly to major islands like Ko Phi Phi and Koh Samui. Fewer operate during the May to October monsoon season, when some services are cancelled completely. As a rule of thumb, the faster the ferry, the more expensive it is. You can book in advance but spaces are usually allocated on a first-come-first-served basis, so always arrive early.
Lots of private companies serve Thailand's islands. Most have websites where you can check schedules and book. You can also book through agencies:
- Thailand Ferry: thaiferry.com
- Phuket Ferry: phuketferry.com
- Lomprayah - High Speed Catamaran: lomprayah.com
- A Ferry: directferries.co.uk
You'll find these long, motorised wooden boats plying the waterways in riverside towns and cities, or on the shores of southern islands.
Public services are available along the Chao Phraya River in Bangkok, or you can charter a boat. Most have space for anything from six to twenty passengers, and it's possible to take lots of luggage or large items – when I was cycling around Ayuthhaya last year, I loaded my bike onto a boat and crossed the river with it.
Aside from short journeys and river crossings, longtail boats are a popular option for touring and sightseeing – Bangkok and Krabi are well-known for their longtail boat tours.
Taxis and private drivers
Metered taxis are available in Bangkok but aren't so common in Chiang Mai – always remember to agree a price before using an un-metered taxi. In Bangkok, licensed taxis are pink or brightly coloured, and have a ‘taxi meter' sign on the roof. Despite this, many don't use the meter unless you insist.
Taxis can be hailed on the side of the road in the same way as in the UK. Another option is to book one through your holiday company or hotel. In Bangkok, Uber and other app-based taxi services are also available:
Pre-booking a car, private driver and English-speaking guide can be a good option for long journeys or sightseeing trips. I did just that when I was in Bangkok last September – I wanted to visit several sites in Kanchanaburi province but I only had one day to fit everything in. With a driver and guide pre-booked through my holiday company, I visited the JEATH War Museum, Don Rak War Cemetery, Bridge over the River Kwai and Hellfire Pass all in one day.
Tuk-tuks and Samlors
A fun way to travel short distances, motorised tuk-tuks have three-wheels and open-sides, with space for three passengers – although they'll often try to cram many more in. You can hail a tuk-tuk on the side of the road, approach a waiting driver, or some hotels operate their own tuk-tuks – the hotel I stayed at in Bangkok last year has a free tuk-tuk service for hotel guests.
Samlors are non-motorised versions of tuk-tuks. Popular in Chaing Mai and Chiang Rai, these three-wheeled tricycle taxis are a fun and cheap way to sightsee – when I was in Chiang Mai last year, I toured the temples by Samlor. Again, you can hail one, approach a waiting driver, or book one through your hotel or holiday company.
There are more than 186,000 registered motorcycle taxis in Thailand. Faster than tuk-tuks, they're a nippy way to travel around a city, explore an island, visit national parks, or reach out-of-the-way attractions.
Drivers usually wear orange vests with numbers on them. To use one, approach a waiting driver. For safety, it's best to travel without luggage, or use a small rucksack. Fares are more expensive if you leave a city or go further afield.
Be aware: Uber and other app-based motorcycle taxi booking services were called to a halt by transport officials in 2016. Drivers who now use the service are at risk of being fined or losing their license.
Renting a vehicle in Thailand
Outside the cities, private vehicles are a convenient way to travel independently. Beyond urban areas, Thailand's roads are uncrowded, and road signs often written in English as well as Thai.
Legally, you need an international license to rent a car, although not all hire companies enforce this. You can book and pay for your vehicle in advance with international agencies like Avis and Budget.
Motorbike and moped hire is even more relaxed – most companies hire bikes to pretty much anyone. A helmet is essential and, if yours doesn't have a visor, wear sunglasses. You should also wear long trousers and shoes (not flip flops) for protection. Accidents are common, and many bikes are in poor condition, so check the tyres, chain and brakes; make sure you're covered by your travel insurance; and never hire a bike if you don't know how to ride one!
It's all part of the Thai experience
With so many exciting ways to get about, travel is a huge part of Thailand's appeal as a holiday destination. From meeting local people on the buses, to seeing ancient ruins through a train window, and peering down on secret islands from a tiny aircraft, Thai travel can really add to your holiday experience.
Alongside the options listed, there are dozens of other options: you could go mountain biking in the national parks or elephant riding in the jungle; you could explore a city on foot; travel above the capital on Bangkok's Skytrain; or cycle around historic ruins – last year, I joined a fantastic full-day Ayutthaya cycle tour, which saw me riding past emerald-green rice paddies and rural villages, before pedalling between the ancient city's sacred temples and crumbling buildings.
No matter where you visit, or how long you come to Thailand for, I recommend being adventurous and, rather than relying solely on taxis or drivers, making the most of Thailand's fantastic variety of transport options. It's well worth it, I promise.