Varied modes of transportation within Thailand are part of the adventure.
Elephants and bamboo rafts, trains and planes, long-tail boats and ferries, tuk-tuks and taxis. The variety of travel options within Thailand is one of the country’s pleasures — when it’s not a source of frustration. Knowing all your options, then picking the best, will get you places faster and more enjoyably. Trying as many as you can, within the limits of common sense, will enrich your visit.
Most cab and boat drivers do not speak English. Nor can they read English. Nor can they read a map. So it’s important to be sure the driver knows where you’re going, before you get started. Hotels and other business establishments print their name and address (as well as directions, if necessary) in Thai script, on their business cards and advertising, expressly for this purpose. Hold on to that card! Without it you’ll need the help of a guide, translator, or dispatcher.
Skytrain. Bangkok. The first portions of Bangkok’s long-needed elevated rail opened in December, 1999. If it’s going your way, it will generally be the cleanest and fastest way around this congested city. No other Thai cities have rail systems for travel within the city.
Metered cabs. Within major cities; also feasible for short excursions into the countryside. Comfortable, often air-conditioned, which counts for a lot if you’re sitting in traffic. Drivers are required by law to charge on the meter. Some, especially late at night, will try to leave the meter off. Either insist that they turn it on, or negotiate a fare before you get in.
Tuk-tuks. Within a city. These 3-wheeled motorized cabs should be a part of your Thai experience, but are better for short distances. Anyone taller than 5’6″ won’t see much, and the open-air ride loses its charm after you sit too long in a smog-belt of traffic. Tuk-tuks are cheaper than a cab, and often faster, as tuk-tuk drivers will weave between traffic, or down the wrong side of the road, to speed up the journey. Officially built for two; you can squeeze in a third. Or a fourth. We once counted eight young soldiers in the same tuk-tuk, all beaming happily. Tuk-tuks are not metered; negotiate a fare in advance.
Samlor. Short distances, e.g., within a neighborhood. These are three-wheeled bicycle rickshaws, kind of like a tuk-tuk without a motor; the driver pedals you around. Slow, but you know you’re in Asia. Samlors, along with elephants, have been banned from Bangkok streets but are still pedalled in some other cities. Negotiate a fare in advance.
Train. City to city. The state-run rail system is inexpensive, and comfortable, but often slow. On some routes you have a selection of various speeds, from Special Express down to Ordinary. The slower trains can work to your advantage if you take a sleeper on an overnight train. You’ll have time for a dinner (served on the train), a full nights sleep, and breakfast, when you journey, for example, from Bangkok to Surit Thani. Three classes of service are available. Most westerners will want to avoid the wooden benches of third class. Second class is comfortable with reclining seats and often air-conditioning, yet still economical. The pricier first-class ticket gets you a private air-conditioned cabin.
Local Bus. Within a city. Buses range from western-style passenger buses to songthaews, which are just trucks with a couple of benches in back. You’ll certainly be rubbing elbows with the local population when you use buses, and they’re so cheap as to seem practically free, for a westerner. Figuring out the routes and schedules is difficult if you don’t speak Thai or have a guide. The songthaews often run when the driver feels they’re full enough, rather than on a set schedule.
Inter-city coach. City to city. You can find direct bus or coach service from Bangkok to most other cities. It’s often faster than train, priced about the same as a second-class train ticket, but will tend to feel more crowded than a train car.
Public ferries and boats. Within a city, or short distances to other cities and islands. In Bangkok, ferries on the Chao Phraya river are far more pleasant than cabs, as long as the river’s going in your direction. Very inexpensive; pay as you board, and bring a map so you can watch for your stop. Any other place there’s water — a river or a bay, canal or lagoon — boats may offer the fastest and most relaxing way to get around.
Chartered boats. Within Bangkok. You can charter a long-tail boat (named for the long rod mounted on the back, which holds the engine and propeller) to explore the khlongs, or canals, on the outskirts of Bangkok. For one or two people, try the aptly-named rocket boat and hold tight. But be wary about hopping into any boat that offers a ride: Shady operators occasionally take tourists to isolated islands, and demand a hefty “fuel charge” to get back. Smaller and private boats are best used when you’re with a Thai-speaking guide.
Motorbike cabs. Certain cities. Some towns, such as Patong Beach, have licensed motorcyclists to get you around. Negotiate a fare, and hop on back. The locals hold onto the motorbike frame. As a westerner, you can pretend not to know better, and put an arm around your beefy driver.
Rental motorbike. Anywhere. We suggest you try various forms of transportation within the limits of common sense, and renting a motorbike arguably goes beyond those limits. Apart from breathing Bangkok air, this is perhaps the most dangerous thing you can do in Thailand. In most areas you’ll be dodging potholes, kids, goats, and other crazy motorbike drivers, while trying to remember to drive on the left. But we promised to lay out all the options here. And a motorbike rental is cheap. A helmet is required in many cities, and insurance is seldom included.
Rental bicycle. Certain cities and countryside. There are spots where a rented bicycle is the ideal way to get around. (The ancient capital of Ayutthaya is one of them. Bangkok is not.) If you’re in such a location, you’ll see other farangs pedaling about. Ask where you can get one. Good-quality rental bikes are a specialty item, and in contrast to many of the bargains available in Thailand, may cost about what they would in the U.S.
Rental car. Anywhere. It’s safer than renting a motorbike. Still, with other forms of transportation (including private charters) so inexpensive, we recommend looking at alternatives before renting a car. You’ll need an international driving license.