Transportation in Thailand Has Variety
Planes, trains, and tuk tuks.
When it comes to getting around Thailand, you have a lot of options. And better yet, hopping from city to city is often an inexpensive adventure. The wide range of transportation in Thailand allows you to create a relatively open itinerary. In fact, it may be in your best interest to do so. With occasional strikes, weather disruptions, and cancellations, booking tickets months in advance could be for nothing. Either way, you’re sure to find everything you need from international travel to local transfers.
Bangkok is in a tense fight with Singapore and Kuala Lumpur to become Southeast Asia’s top hub for international air travel. The city offers a diverse set of destinations, comparable to those offered in other Asian travel hubs such as Seoul and Tokyo.
Thailand boasts eight international airports. Two in Bangkok (BKK and DMK) and one in Chiang Mai (CNX), Phuket (HKT), Krabi (KBV), Surat Thani (URT), Koh Samui (USM), and Hat Yai (HDY). Long-haul flights most often leave from Bangkok, although occasionally from Phuket or Chiang Mai. The remaining international airports offer transfers through Bangkok, in addition to direct flights to neighboring countries.
In addition to air travel, Thailand offers land transfers with Malaysia, Cambodia, Laos, and Burma. Depending on your location, these land connections can be taken via train, night bus, minivan, or any combination of the three.
When entering and exiting Thailand, it’s important to be up to date on laws related to border crossing. For example, if you stayed in Thailand after your visa expired, you’ll be required to pay 500 baht per day you overstayed. And if you’ve already had a free on-entry visa, you may be required to apply for an official tourist visa. If you want to know more about the laws associating with traveling to Thailand and neighboring countries, be sure to check out our upcoming article.
Traveling in Thailand
When it comes to traveling within Thailand, most tourists are overwhelmed by their options. You can choose from domestic airlines, trains, buses, ferries, minibuses, and more. In fact, you’ll often find yourself taking several of those options in one day. For example, traveling from Ao Nang to Koh Phangan often involves a minivan transfer to a bus, a bus transfer to a ferry, and then a ferry transfer to the island. Basically, you won’t have to walk unless you want to!
Traveling by Plane
Aside from the international airports listed above, Thailand offers a variety of domestic options. These include airports in Chiang Rai, Pai, Lampang, Ranong, Trang, Trat, and Pattaya, among others. More often than not , airfares are comparable to the cost of taking a train or bus (and are occasionally cheaper). For travellers who aren’t on a strict budget, the slightly higher cost is worth the increased comfort and decreased travel time. However, be careful before you book a flight. Not all of the local airports are located in the most ideal locations, so you’ll need to schedule for bus transfers to the airport itself.
Pro-Tip: The budget airlines in Southeast Asia have strict limits on bag weights—be sure to take baggage costs into consideration when choosing a flight.
Traveling by Train
Train travel is one of the lesser developed travel options in Thailand. However, it can occasionally be your best option. It is predominantly safe, comfortable, and affordable. Booking an overnight route can save you a day of accommodation while still providing the comfort of a bed. The vast majority of tickets come with first and second class options. The primary difference between the two being access to aircon, level of privacy, and seat comfort. When offered, third class cars are often standing room only.
Traveling via train in Thailand is best described as a dated experience. It is the slowest form of transportation, but can offer great views and a chance to wind down from a hectic week. The northern route runs between Chiang Mai and Bangkok. A southern route runs from Bangkok to Surat Thani, Hat Yai, and Trang. In addition, there are smaller routes that run from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, Nong Khai, and Ubon Ratchathani. If traveling to Laos, these last three routes are an easy way to get to the border crossing.
Pro-Tip: While the trains usually leave on time, they almost never arrive on time. Plan to arrive two to three hours later than scheduled.
Traveling by Bus
Bus travel is one of the more popular options in Thailand, as it is quite often the cheapest method of getting around. The bus routes in Thailand are operated by both state-run and private companies. Every province has at least one bus station, but they can be relatively out of the way. Be prepared to pay for transport to and from the station itself in addition to your bus ticket.
The buses come in a variety of shapes and sizes, with the two main options being air-con and fan-cooled buses. The air-con buses will be slightly more expensive, but offer more comfortable seats and on-board bathrooms. While your luggage will be stored underneath the bus on air-con buses, it’s often placed in or on top of a fan-cooled bus. Compare prices and decide which option is better for your budget.
Pro-Tip: There are occasionally instances of theft—especially on night time routes—so keep anything valuable in a smaller bag at your seat.
Traveling by Minivan
Although they’re a bit less comfortable, traveling by minivan is a faster and more flexible method of travelling through Thailand. While in southern Thailand, the vast majority of your transfers will be via minivan with a connection to a ferry. Most often, these vans seat around ten passengers and all luggage is stored in the back. A major perk of travelling via minivan is that many companies will pick you up at your hostel—meaning you don’t have to arrange transfer to a bus station.
Pro-Tip: Avoid using minivans if you easily get car sick! The drivers are on a schedule, and they weave in and out of traffic.
Traveling by Songthaew
Songthaew literally translates to “two rows” in English. Their name is pretty straight-forward (in other words, they have two rows of seats). Drivers will take a pick-up truck, add a roof, and add two benches along each side. When the seats are full, there’s also a small standing platform on the back of the truck.
They are one of the cheaper forms of transportation, and particularly popular when travelling within cities or provinces. Some Songthaews run on fixed routes and have a timetable, while others operate like any normal taxi would. When travelling with a group—whether you just met in a bar or have been travelling together for weeks—these are a great way to stick together.
Pro-Tip: Gather some friends when you’re going to be traveling by Songthaew! The driver won’t want to waste an entire car on one person, and may make you wait until it fills up.
Traveling by Taxi
If you google “Taxis in Bangkok” you’re sure to find both horror stories and blogs singing their praises. When it comes down to it, taxis are a comfortable and cheap way to make your way around Thailand. While not all cities in Thailand have metered taxis, you’ll still come across them pretty regularly. You’ll most often see them around airports and in big cities such as Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Chiang Rai.
If you’re in a smaller city, it’s pretty likely that the taxis won’t have meters. Instead, they’ll work on a pre-determined set fare. In those instances, you can trust the fare they give you (although feel free to bargain). When you’re in larger cities, always demand that the taxi driver uses the meter. If they refuse, get out and find another cab. Thai law requires taxi drivers to use the meter, and you are almost certainly being ripped off if they don’t.
Pro-Tip: Be aware of surcharges—many taxes charge extra for airport transfers, nighttime transfers, and rush hour transfers.
Traveling by Taxi Bike
Motorbike taxis are one of the most exciting—and terrifying—ways to get around Thailand. While walking through a city, you’ll see a group of men in orange-colored vests lining nearly every corner. Just walk up to one and tell them your destination. They’ll respond with a price, and then you can hop on their bike! If you’ve never ridden on the back of a bike before, just be careful. You don’t want your first experience to be a bad one!
Many backpackers will purchase their own bike and make their trek all over Southeast Asia. Others just rent a bike in Thailand. Taxi bikes are a great way to test the waters without putting yourself behind the wheel.
If you’re visiting Thailand during rainy season, be careful grabbing a taxi bike even if it’s sunny outside. Rain can come in at a moment’s notice!
Pro-Tip: Use a motorbike taxi when you’re in a rush. They weave in and out of traffic, and are the fastest way to get around (even if they’re a bit more expensive).
Traveling by Tuk Tuk
Tuk tuks are the official unofficial symbol of Thailand. Essentially motorbikes with fancy sidecars, tuk tuks can be found in nearly every corner of Thailand. While they appear to be a tourist trap, locals often make use of them. Tuk tuks are a lot safer than motorcycles, but still offer the feeling of an open air ride. Just be sure to agree on a price before you get on—and don’t be afraid to haggle! Even though most tuk tuk drivers are earning a fair living, a handful are involved in scams. If your driver ever tries to tell you that a major tourist area is closed for the day, simply ask them to stop and get off. If you believe them, they’ll take you to a friend’s overpriced business or tour.
Pro-Tip: Do your best to tell your tuk tuk driver a nearby landmark rather than an exact address. Many don’t speak English, and walking a little bit is better than getting lost.
Traveling by Ferry
When you’re in southern Thailand, you’ll spend more time on islands than off of them. As a result, you’ll be pretty dependent on ferries. The best part about ferry travel is that all of the prices and routes are set (and usually include the transfer to the ferry). While different vendors may charge prices that slightly vary, all of the prices will be nearly identical. Your best bet in regards to purchasing tickets will be to do it in person. Booking weeks in advance isn’t really necessary, but we would encourage you to book at least a few days before you plan to leave for your destination.
Pro-Tip: Bring along pills for seasickness! When the weather is bad, the water can be rocky. You don’t want to pull up to an island feeling hungover even though you haven’t drank!