Our fellow traveller, James Petersen, composed an article about his non-van experience in Thailand. Here’s how to get around Thailand safely and cheaply.
Out of the van and out of the states
While I’m a veteran van traveler here in the states, I do like to see the rest of the world from time to time. In the spring of 2016, I was lucky enough to spend 3 weeks in Southern Thailand.
I wish I could say that my travel within Thailand was by Campervan, but that’s an as-yet lived adventure.
Fortunately, Agness and Cez here at AtukTuk.com were gracious enough to allow me to contribute an article about a non-van experience. Thanks guys!!
Prior to heading to this gem of southeast Asia I naturally studied forums and other online resources to gain some idea of how to get around while in the country.
I found plenty of info, suggestions and opinions on forums and blogs until I felt like I had a handle on travel within Thailand.
Of course, no amount of reading can prepare you for the real thing. Even though I’d traveled internationally, Thailand has its unique issues, and I was in for a few surprises.
Hopefully, this account of my experiences with various Thai travel modes will save you a buck or two, a missed connection or other frustration.
Imagine you’d grown up with 83 degrees Fahrenheit (28 C) as a daily average, with highs over 100 and lows rarely below 75. Of course 95 would seem hot, but 75 might feel too cool.
I believe that this is why Thai drivers, be they taxi, Uber, Grabcar, bus or train, tend to set the air conditioning above 80 degrees.
Western travelers, while sweating profusely in Bangkok traffic, might notice that the AC in the cab is only set to the half way point. Of course in a car you can ask the driver to crank it up, but on a bus or train, you’ll have to suck it up and live with the heat.
Don’t be surprised when the hotel maids looks confused that your AC is blasting ice sickles, and your cab driver turns the ac back down a few minutes after you’ve requested a boost.
My first taxi ride was pretty typical; upon arrival at 3 am in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, I headed to the Taxi stand and requested a driver.
Some tips I’d read suggest to only hire “official”, licensed drivers, get a cost estimate before departure and make sure they turn the meter on (required by law in Thailand).
This all checked out, so I jumped in a clean, licensed cab with an older, diminutive driver who spoke not a single word of English, and off we went to find my first hotel, located near the heart of Bangkok.
Much of Bangkok is buried within a labyrinth of alleys. So much so that no driver could possibly know the whole city.
GPS got us within about ½ mile of the hotel on an arterial before we plunged into the alley maze. The driver had to stop to call the hotel front desk twice before he was able to find it.
Later I would learn a new term: “Primate City”, or a city that’s more than twice the size of the next largest city in the country, for which Bangkok is the poster child. The biggest take away from this first taxi hire was realizing just how truly vast Bangkok is.
The traditional taxi system is widespread, and finding a taxi to hire can be quick and easy. Experienced taxi drivers know large areas like Bangkok, and how to navigate its complexities.
Even if we compare the very low cost of taxis in Thailand to any western city, they can more expensive than other options available.
The legal system in Thailand has not kept up with population growth and tourism, so service providers like taxi drivers can and do get away with overcharging. They’re working on improving this, but it’s far from perfect.
I would use the standard, licensed Thai taxi services two more times on this trip, until I found a much better solution (more on that, below).
I spent two nights in my first hotel, mostly sleeping and adjusting to the time and the heat. I’d wake up every two or three hours and if the sun was out, stumble down to a food cart (most alleys are lined with them), get a bite and some coffee and venture around.
By day two I was at least partly over my jet lag and ready for more travel within Thailand. I would catch another taxi, to a train, to an airport, to a commercial bus to my next hotel on Phuket.
Whew! In hindsight, that sounds exhausting, but I love to travel, so it was all exciting at the time.
A bit ironic for this site, but I chose to not ride Tuk Tuks in Thailand for a number of reasons. My hotels were all in very walkable areas, I’d read too many negative experiences about them, and there were always other options.
It’s common to assume that Tuk Tuks are cheaper than other modes of travel and I’m sure this is true in some countries. I did get quotes for rides a couple of times and found them to cost as much or more than taxis.
I think that a Tuk Tuk ride would be fun on a weekend night with a group of people going from one nightclub to another, but there are safer, cheaper ways to get around.
I absolutely LOVED riding the open air Local Buses on Phuket and used them for several short trips
Something about these buses fosters conversation with locals and other travelers. The open sides make for the best kind of scenery viewing and I much prefer natural air flow to air conditioning.
I was the first to board the local bus at 7:00 am at the top of the run in Kamala beach. Within 15 minutes I was packed in with 20 locals on their way to work and school, complete with teenage boys hanging off the back.
I’m 6’ tall and lanky and I couldn’t unfold my legs for several slow miles of stops and starts. For a moment or two, I was afraid I was going to plunge into a full-on panic attack.
But the Thai people are very sweet and notoriously clean, so once I got over myself, being jammed in with school kids, grandmas and babies was ultimately more charming than stressful.
The cost of my longest local bus ride was 35 Thai baht, or about one us dollar. The local buses run on regular schedules and can often be hailed along the route if you’re not at a stop.
The local buses are a great cultural experience and if you get the chance to ride them, don’t hesitate.
The wind in your hair, getting to meet and ride with the wonderful Thai people, I love the whole experience of these little buses. They tend to run with regularity and reasonably on time.
If you can’t live without air conditioning, soft seats, leg room or any of the comforts of western style public transport, you’ll want to skip the local bus.
I rode two other buses on this trip. The first was a ten passenger commercial charter from Phuket International Airport to my second hotel in the Pa Tong area on Phuket.
Half way through this 2 hour bus ride our driver pulled into a travel agency where all passengers were told we needed to go into the office to “get our tickets validated”.
In the office, travel agents offered us discounted tickets for Krabi and other tropical island tours.
I’ve read several accounts of this ploy on forums. Many travelers are outraged at the interruption and I don’t really blame them. Considering the very low cost of the bus ticket, the short sales pitch was not really a problem.
It was a very hot day and no-one, including our driver, was enthusiastic about the stop, and we were back on the road within 20 minutes.
You’ll see big signs in the airports for very inexpensive charter buses. Be sure to ask if they’re non-stop. If you don’t like the idea of being sold travel services along with way, opt for another service.
My second bus ride was over four hours long on a full sized (40+ seat) touring style bus.
It was a long trip over higher elevation roads, some of which were poorly maintained.
I was exhausted from travel when I got on this bus and more so when the ride was over thanks to the hot, rough ride. But I can’t fault the bus or the driver for any of that. I commandeered the back bench seat and did my best to sleep.
There are many bus travel options in Thailand that will take you virtually anywhere within the country. With careful planning, you can have great experiences on them. I’ve read of luxury bus services that provide every imaginable creature comfort.
Even some higher-end services have poor ratings, lots of negative comments and reports of poor passenger treatment.
Do your research and plan carefully to avoid these pitfalls.
Thai train travel is legendary and over the last 20 years, the government has made substantial improvements to the rail system throughout Thailand.
My first train trip was a short run of 90 minutes or so from Hualamphong Station to Don Mueang Airport to catch a flight down to Phuket.
It was just a few very spartan cars with a few locals on board. The seats were hard plastic but comfortable and the cars featured huge windows that opened all the way for maximum airflow.
This allowed me to take in the full views of passing scenery, architecture, temples, people and more. I was in heaven.
I planned to attempt a long train ride as part of my Thailand adventure, the original idea was to get a sleeping cabin from Bangkok to Surat Thani.
Songkran, the Thai new year celebration, fell within a few days of my arrival. During this festival, the entire country is on the move to visit family and take a break from work, so train tickets were scarce.
At the end of my trip, I got lucky and scored the last, 1st class ticket on the train from Surat Thani to Bangkok. Unlike Amtrak in the states, they don’t offer sleeper cars during the day.
This was a nine-hour ride and another opportunity to see the countryside and meet fellow travelers.
The seats were comfortable and the AC was chugging along at a cozy (ahem) 83 degrees. At several stops vendors were allowed on board to sell prepared food, fruit, drinks, nuts…
Only one stop was long enough to detrain, just as well as we kept moving and arrived in Bangkok ahead of schedule.
Whether basic, short trip trains or the more comfortable long haul situation, trains are perhaps the most authentic way to travel within Thailand, and I recommend prioritizing them as part of your trip.
Pay attention to holidays and purchase tickets in advance when possible to avoid long delays.
Don’t expect European or even Amtrak level comfort on Thai trains.
If you don’t plan ahead during busy travel times, you may find yourself stranded and forced to use another mode.
Beyond that, I struggle to find fault with Thailand’s rail system.
Due to the lack of train seats from Bangkok to Phuket at the start of my trip I chose to fly down to Phuket.
The travel agent upstairs in Hualamphong train station in Bangkok did a great job setting me up with a ticket on Thai Smile. They also allowed me to store my luggage in their office while I waited for the train to the airport.
My trip on Thai Smile from Suvarnabhumi in Bangkok to Phuket International Airport was short; about an hour.
The process at the airport was smooth, the plane was clean and comfortable, the hostesses were great and everything ran on time.
It was a good trip, but not long enough for comprehensive review, so I have no cons to mention.
After a week at Kata Beach on Phuket, I wanted to check out a quieter area and maybe find a wave to surf in the off season. Google searches like “low key beaches Phuket” and “off-season surfing Phuket”, led me to a terrific spot.
Compared to the big party spots like Pa Tong, Kamala Beach is a more mature, low key and absolutely gorgeous beach town with reasonably priced beach side hotels, boutique hotels in Bangkok, Airbnb apartments, bars and restaurants.
I had to get from Kata to Kamala and I had a feeling the taxi drivers I talked to were trying to gouge me.
I mentioned my travel issue to a barista at a favorite internet cafe and he recommended I install the Grab App on my phone. Within 10 minutes I had a cost estimate of less than half what the taxi drivers had quoted me and the driver was on his way.
Grab is similar to Uber, but GrabTaxi uses taxi drivers, who tend to know the region well, are licensed and, since they get paid directly by Grab, they can charge significantly less than when they’re dispatched through the taxi companies.
My ride to Kamala was pleasant, the driver was a pro with a clean (and yes, cool) car and I arrived at my Airbnb in Kamala without incident.
I’d use the GrabTaxi app several more times before my trip was over.
I was up early on the last day of my trip and wanted to go on a walking tour. The plan was to get lost and then rely on a car service to get me back to my hotel.
I headed out into the labyrinth of alleys to see what I could see, get some food, do some shopping…
After walking a couple of miles, finding some gifts for friends and taking an impromptu tour of a university campus, I ended up at a nice cafe for lunch. I was completely lost. My walk was a success.
I opened the Uber app and found a driver within 10 minutes of my location. He arrived and we found each other with little issue.
Remember how my first taxi driver, a veteran of the road, had to call the hotel desk twice before we reached my destination?
This Uber driver was a 22-year-old college student relying entirely on Google Maps to find a similarly hidden hotel.
Within a few minutes, he managed to take me many miles out of the way and nowhere near my hotel. Once we were re-oriented and on the right track, we got stuck in a traffic jam.
What should have been a 10-minute drive took over an hour.
To my young drivers credit, he ignored the fee on the Uber app and insisted I only pay for what the trip should have cost (about 40 baht) had he not gotten us lost.
But he’d been very persistent, not lost his cool (cranked up the AC on request) and I had no complaints, so I paid him 120 baht.
This experience convinced me that it’s best to have an experienced driver in an old city not well covered by Google or other map programs.
So, the best of the car hire services in Thailand, in my humble opinion, is GrabTaxi, because you get professional drivers with a full navigational toolbox that includes experience and is not limited to new technology.
GrabTaxi is a brilliant solution to price gouging drivers, and the drivers benefit by earning a higher percentage of the fee and getting paid quickly.
I’m sure there are great Thai Uber drivers with lots of knowledge of their area. But if time were tight, I might even risk getting overcharged in a cab to avoid getting lost in a place like Bangkok or other big towns.
You’ll find lots of great, reasonably priced options for travel within Thailand.
Keep in mind that Thailand is a developing country, and there can be surprises along the way. Some research and trip planning will allow for a safe and exciting journey.
The best advice I can give is to stay open to new adventures and don’t allow worry to limit your travel in this wonderful, fascinating country.
Please comment below with questions, or your own tips for getting around within Thailand. I’ll do my best to answer.
Thanks for reading
This is a guest post by James Petersen, who’s a passionate van travel adventurer, cyclist and world traveler. You can read more of his articles and learn everything you need to know about campervan life and gear at VanSage.com.