How to Navigate Transport in Thailandairport_transferbarbathtubbusiness_facilitieschild_activitieschildcareconnecting_roomcribsfree_wifigymhot_tubinternetkitchennon_smokingpetpoolresturantski_in_outski_shuttleski_storagesmoking_areaspastar

How to Navigate Transport in Thailand

A Thai bus
A Thai bus | © Junpei Abe / Flickr
From the southern beaches and islands through the central plains and to the northern mountains and temples, Thailand has so much to offer. Isan, or Northeast Thailand, and western Thailand offer even more memorable experiences. But how can you get around the Land of Smiles to discover the country’s incredible diversity? Here’s everything you need to know about transport in Thailand.

Bus

Thailand has an extensive bus network that connects most major towns and cities as well as many smaller villages. Services typically run between provincial capitals, with stops along the routes. Many routes start or finish in Bangkok at one of the three bus stations (Mochit, Ekkamai, and Sai Tai Mai.). There are two types of long-distance and inter-city bus in Thailand: services operated by the state-run Transport Company and those run by various private companies. Government buses are cheap and plentiful; the company was initially established to make sure everyone, regardless of where they lived in the nation, had access to Bangkok. Private buses, especially VIP services, typically have higher standards of comfort. Night buses help to reduce the tedium of long journeys. Long-distance buses, both private and government, typically have on-board toilets.

Local tip: Have a light-weight sweater or jacket to hand for your bus trip. The air-conditioning can be very cold!

Private bus in Thailand © Renjith Sasidharan / Flickr

Minivan

Complementing the bus network, small white minivans speed along Thailand’s roads, connecting Bangkok with the provinces and operating inter-provincial and local routes. Vans will stop on request to let people off, picking up passengers waiting alongside roads to fill the vacant seats. Many Bangkok services use one of the three main bus stations, though vans often shuttle people between popular tourist areas removing the need to get to a bus station to commence the journey. For example, minivans connect Bangkok’s backpacking hub of Khao San Road with Pattaya. Provincial services often leave from the main bus stations, though some cities and towns have a separate minivan station. Although services that connect much-visited tourist destinations generally anticipate passengers travelling with bulky luggage and make the necessary space, you may need to pay for an extra seat for large cases and backpacks on other routes. Tourist-focused vans can be pricey, but those that mainly transport locals often have a similar price to the buses, with the main benefit being the quicker journey time.

Local tip: Buckle up, strap in, and always wear your seat belt! It is now compulsory by law. Vans often drive fast and some might say erratically, so it’s for your own safety too. Try to avoid sitting at the back as the rear seats often experience the bumpiest ride.

Train

Although slow, trains can be a cheap way of exploring Thailand. There are three main lines throughout the country, each starting at Bangkok’s Hualamphong Train Station. The Northern Line links with Chiang Mai via Ayutthaya, Lopburi, Phitsanulok, and Lampang. The Northeastern Line has two branches, both of which go through Ayutthaya and then split at Nakhon Ratchasima. One ends at Ubon Ratchathani, passing through Buriram, Surin, and Sisaket, while the other finishes at Nong Khai and passes through Khon Kaen and Udon Thani. The Southern Line travels down the Gulf Coast and terminates at Sungai Kolok on the Malaysian border. Major destinations along the line include Hua Hin, Chumphon, Surat Thani, and Hat Yai.

Looking out of the train window © Michael Coghlan / Flickr

Another important line is the Eastern Line, with two branches (that split at Chachoengsao) to Chonburi’s Ban Plu Ta Luang (just south of Pattaya) and Aranyaprathet (for the border crossing with Cambodia).

The Kanchanaburi Line starts at Thonburi Train Station and travels to Namtok via Kanchanaburi Town, while the Mae Klong Railway, famous for the market on the tracks, connects Bangkok’s Wongwian Yai Station with Samut Songkram.

Trains may have four travel classes: First Class, Second Class (sleeper), Second Class (bunks), and Third Class. Travelling in first or second class for long journeys, particularly night services, is highly recommended. Train tickets can be bought at stations, from booking agents, or online. If a small provincial station doesn’t have a ticket office you can pay on the train.

Local tip: Book a bottom bunk on a sleeper train — the prices are a little higher but the beds are a lot more roomy.

Train crossing the Bridge Over the River Kwai © Prowpatareeya Tan / Flickr

Songthaew

Songthaews are often used locally to travel fairly short distance on set routes. They may run between provinces as well as serving different districts within a particular province. A favourite form of transport with Thais, songthaews are cheap and cheerful, if not sometimes crowded. They are pickup trucks or small trucks that have been converted to local-style buses, with two benches in the rear, an open back and sides, and a roof over the bed. Songthaews are often one of the most cost-effective modes of transportation. While they invariably pass through provincial bus stations they generally don’t have set stops; passengers stand at the side of the road and indicate that they want a vehicle to stop, and there are buzzers to show that you want to alight.

Local tip: Have coins and small notes available to pay; drivers often don’t carry a lot of change.

Songthaew in Sukhothai, Thailand © Heiko S / Flickr

Tuk tuk

One of Thailand’s most well-known forms of transport, tuk tuks can be found in most parts of the country, even on many islands. (A noticeable exception is Koh Samui.) The small, three-wheel vehicles are used as a private door-to-door transport option. A ride isn’t the cheapest, but it’s an iconic experience in Thailand to try at least once. You should negotiate the price before starting your journey.

Local tip: Ask an independent third party, such as your hotel’s receptionist, for a rough idea of how much tuk tuks should cost to a particular place.

Tuk tuks are famous in Thailand © Alexi Kostibas / Flickr

Skylab

Operating in the same way as tuk tuks, skylabs are particularly common in Northeast Thailand. More economical to run than tuk tuks, faster, and with larger engines, skylabs were initially used in the agricultural sector for transporting goods, produce, livestock, and equipment. They have three wheels and a seating area at the back, as with a tuk tuk. The main visual difference is the front area, where the driver sits. The front of a tuk tuk is integrated with the back, the driver has a windscreen, and the roof covers the whole vehicle. A skylab looks like a motorbike at the front. The driver is covered by a canopy extending from the main roof but is typically completely open otherwise.

Local tip: Don’t jump in a skylab if rain looks imminent — they are very open, you are very exposed, and you will get wet!

Row of skylabs in Thailand © laurence king / Flickr

Samlor

Samlor means “three wheels” in Thai. It is commonly used to refer to a motorbike with a side car. Nowadays, many samlors have the side car actually welded to the bike for greater safety and security. They operate in the same way as tuk tuks and skylabs; they offer a private, short-distance ride and you must arrange the price beforehand. It’s common for samlors to have a side seat for two, and some have an additional seat for one at the end. Another passenger can sometimes sit on the back of the motorbike part. Even though samlors can carry up to four people, it’s recommended to only travel with two as they can be quite unstable.

Local tip: Samlors can be quite speedy and they tend to tilt somewhat while in motion. Hold onto any bags and belongings to make sure they don’t roll right out.

Negoriating for a ride in a samlor, Thailand © Luca Conti / Flickr

Rickshaw

A dying form of transport in Thailand, rickshaws are the traditional three-wheeled vehicle that is peddled by the driver, rather like a bicycle with a carriage behind. You may see them loaded up with a family, but it’s better to stick to two (slender!) passengers for everyone’s sake. They are mainly used to cover short distances in small provincial towns and villages or as a novelty at major tourist sites. You need to agree the price before riding.

Local tip: Do consider giving the rider a decent tip; his legs have worked hard for your ride!

Rickshaw in Chiang Mai, Thailand © CNS Images / Flickr

Metro and Sky Train

Bangkok is, thus far, the only city in Thailand to have a metro and sky train mass transit system. Great for beating the traffic on congested roads, they carry commuters and tourists around the newer parts of the city and the outskirts. There are interchange systems between the two systems, but they each have their own ticketing system; you cannot purchase integrated tickets or tokens.

Local tip: The 30-day Rabbit Card can help long-term visitors save money on the BTS Sky Train. The MRT Plus card is a pre-loaded card that helps frequent users beat the queues on the metro.

The BTS Sky Train in Bangkok © Michael O'Gorman / Flickr

Taxi

Many of Thailand’s cities, islands, and popular tourist areas have taxis, often noticeable for their bright colours. By law, Thai taxis should use their meters, though this isn’t always followed in some areas. Taxi scams are fairly common and you should research taxi tips for a particular area prior to your visit. For example, in Bangkok you should decline a taxi that won’t use the meter and find another. In Pattaya, however, you’ll probably need to put your haggling hat on.

Local tip: Keep your cool while negotiating with taxi drivers; there’s little point in getting angry and making a scene.

Multi-coloured taxis in Thailand © Christian Haugen / Flickr

Motorbike taxi

Motorbike taxis are a vital part of Thailand’s transportation options, especially in rural areas where other forms of transport may be very limited. As well as being useful for solo travellers, couples and groups may consider using taxi motosai (as they are known in Thai) in the absence of other choices. Drivers wear colourful vests to distinguish themselves from regular scooter users. Prices should be agreed before starting your journey.

Local tip: Always wear a helmet, no matter how short the distance. Although motorbike taxi drivers are often experienced riders, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Motorbike taxis waiting for business © shankar s. / Flickr

Rental vehicle

Renting a car, motorbike, or scooter is easy in Thailand. Global rental companies have a choice of vehicles that can be collected from almost all across the country, and local rental companies can be found in most major tourist areas.

Large motorbikes are typically available to rent in popular tourist destinations. Rental scooters are available in most places, even in many small provincial towns. Inexpensive and convenient, scooters are also among one of the most risky forms of transport. You shouldn’t ride if you’ve never ridden before — Thailand’s roads are not the place to get to grips with a new vehicle type!

Check rental vehicles before accepting them, and note any existing damages or defects to avoid potential problems on your return. Remember to drive on the left, be alert to hazards, don’t let fuel levels run too low, and always wear a helmet if travelling by two wheels.

Local tip: Don’t even consider renting a vehicle without insurance and the necessary licence.

How NOT to ride a scooter in Thailand © toastal / Flickr

Ferry and boat

From island and river ferries and speedboats to private-hire long tail boats and river taxis, there are many water-based transportation options in Thailand. River ferries in places like Bangkok can be an affordable, scenic, and novel way to travel. Long-tail boats are often ideal for groups of travellers who want to access a lesser-visited island or enjoy a day hopping between nearby islands without the tour group. Most of Thailand’s beautiful islands can only be reached by water. Popular islands, like Koh Tao, Koh Phangan, Koh Phi Phi, Koh Lanta, and Kog Chang have regular ferry and speedboat services to connect them with the mainland. Speedboats are quicker but the crossings are often a lot bumpier.

Local tip: Keep in mind that water-based transportation services can be disrupted during the monsoon season and plan appropriately.

Domestic flight

Thailand has several international airports and numerous domestic airports. Suvarnabhumi (BKK) and Don Mueang (DMK), both in Bangkok, are the busiest airports in Thailand. Don Mueang Airport is mainly used by budget airlines. Many domestic services, with a number of carriers, connect these airports with other parts of the country. Other major Thai airports include Chiang Mai (CNX), Phuket (HKT), Koh Samui (USM), Hat Yai (HDY), Chiang Rai (CEI), Udon Thani (UTH), and Krabi (KBV).

Inside Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok © Paul Sullivan / Flickr

Chiang Mai to Phuket flights (and vice versa) help you travel from north to south with ease. Looking to switch up the beaches? Hop on a flight between Phuket and Pattaya/Chonburi/Rayong. There are also direct flights between Chiang Mai and Koh Samui, and Hat Yai is well connected to the rest of the country, with direct flights to and from Khon Kaen, Pattaya/Chonburi/Rayong, Udon Thani, Bangkok, Phuket, and more. Udon Thani is connected to Phuket, Pattaya/Chonburi/Rayong, and Bangkok, among others.

The main budget airlines for domestic flights in Thailand include Thai Air Asia, Nok Air, Thai Lion Air, Thai VietJet Air, Orient Thai, and Thai Smile. Thai Airways and Bangkok Airways are usually a bit pricier, though they have generous luggage allowances and extra perks.

Local tip: The price of domestic flights can be comparable to long-distance buses and trains. Compare options and you may save a lot of time.

One of Nok Air's fleet © Rawipad C.KKU / Flickr

Transportation apps

Local city guide apps often provide useful details about local transport, routes, timetables, and rough prices. Bangkok MRT app makes using the metro a breeze. Grab operates in many places in Thailand, helping you save money on private transport. NaviGo, a similar ride-sharing concept, is handy in Koh Samui and All Thai Taxi lets you order a regular taxi in Bangkok. The messaging app of Line is useful for contacting individual taxi drivers and motorbike taxi drivers when you need a ride. Google Maps and Google Translate are useful across the world.

Local tip: Thai Best Dict app works offline and can help break down language barriers when trying to arrange transport (or other matters).

Various vehicles in Bangkok's traffic © null0 / Flickr