Getting around in Thailand is extremely easy, thanks to the excellent tourist infrastructure and high volume of travelers. But not all transportation options are equal when it comes to price and hassle.
Riding in a tuk-tuk is a unique experience not to be missed in Thailand. Listening to your fast-talking driver and sucking in exhaust fumes are all part of the experience.
But if you really need to move around comfortably, you can get a metered taxi for around the same price -- or less!
Tuk-tuk drivers in Thailand are famous for their scams. You'll have to negotiate your fare before getting inside, and never agree to stop at shops the driver recommends along the way.
- See more about using tuk-tuks in Thailand.
Taxis in Thailand are often cheaper and more comfortable than going by tuk-tuk, assuming you ensure that the driver uses the meter. Just because the sign on top reads 'Taxi Meter' does not guarantee that the driver will use the meter.
Before getting into a taxi, ensure that the meter will be used. If a driver refuses -- and they may, particularly during rush hour -- simply continue hailing taxis until you find an honest driver. You'll have to pay an additional surcharge when using coupon taxis from the airport. You will also be expected to pay any tolls encountered.
- Read about taking taxis in Asia.
While some nefarious proprietors may offer you a ride on their motorbike, official motorcycle taxi drivers in Thailand must wear a colored vest. You'll need to negotiate your fare before getting on, then hold on tight -- taking a motorcycle taxi in busy cities can be a hair-raising experience!
Note: Your driver will probably wear the only helmet available. Travel insurance rarely covers accidents that happen on motorcycles.
Trains in Thailand
Traveling by train in Thailand can be a very enjoyable experience, particularly on short, scenic jaunts such as the stretch between Bangkok and Ayutthaya. Unlike long-haul buses, trains often fill up quickly in Thailand; try to book your ticket several days in advance.
Thailand has an assortment of trains running the rails, so whether you end up with a new, modern carriage or a squeaky, aging one is simply a matter of luck. Regardless, trains are better than buses for both scenery and the freedom to stretch the legs on a walk.
For overnight trips, travelers typically default to second-class sleeper cars. An attendant will come around to turn the facing bench seats into two bunks with privacy curtains. Top bunks are slightly cheaper but shorter in length; travelers with long legs will be cramped.
Pushy attendants sell low-quality food and overpriced drinks on sleeper trains. Bring your own snacks or you can visit the dining car at the back of the train.
- Learn all about train travel in Thailand.
While certainly not the cheapest, budget flights are always the safest and most comfortable way to move around Thailand.
The earlier you book with budget carriers, the more money that you'll save. You'll still have to pay extra charges for luggage and get your own transportation to the airport.
Some major airports for getting around in Thailand:
- Bangkok (BKK)
- Chiang Mai (CNX) -- for Pai and other points in the north
- Koh Samui (USM) -- for access to islands such as Koh Phangan and Koh Tao
- Phuket (HKT) -- for access to islands on the west side of Thailand
- Krabi (KBV) -- for access to islands on the west coast and places such as Railay
- Surat Thani (URT) -- for access to islands in the Gulf of Thailand
Read about Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport and what to expect.
Tourist Bus or Government Bus?
Visitors to Thailand more often than not end up on tourist-only buses with tickets sold by travel agencies and reception desks. While volume sometimes makes tourist prices even cheaper than the government buses, tourist buses are often unpleasant -- passengers are herded like cattle -- and sometimes even the targets of theft.
For a more comfortable, long-haul bus experience, you'll need to make your own way by taxi or tuk-tuk to the bus station and purchase your own tickets, rather than going through an agent. Navigating the station and finding the right queue can sometimes be a challenge, however, government buses are often more comfortable and include water and snacks.
- Read more about how to use buses in Asia.
Night Buses in Thailand
Taking a night bus in Thailand has some great advantages. You'll save a night of accommodation, wake up at your destination, and won't waste a nice day moving between points. But unless you're well practiced, don't expect to get much sleep on a night bus as your driver blows the horn and careens over rough roads. Leg room can be cramped, particularly if the passenger in front of you fully reclines their seat.
Although a tiny squat toilet will usually be found on board night buses, you'll hopefully make one or two stops so that the driver can take a break. Stops at the sprawling roadside travel centers are typically very brief -- use the toilet first then shop for food and drinks!
Tip: Bring a fleece or blanket with you on the bus. Although a blanket is sometimes provided, they are often dirty. You'll be glad you brought some warm clothing as the air conditioning often reaches freezing temperatures.
Theft on Night Buses in Thailand
If you choose to take the tourist night bus, do not leave any valuables in your luggage that will be stored beneath. A decades-old problem, the driver's assistant climbs into the luggage compartment of your bus while it is rolling down the road and opens bags. Small items such as pocketknives and phone chargers often go missing, and your bus will long be down the road before you discover what's gone.
Some tips to avoid theft on night buses:
- Thieves don't always go for big items. Even expensive sunscreen is sometimes stolen.
- Lock your luggage or use plastic zip ties to connect zippers; you can cut them off after you arrive.
- Pack only laundry -- preferably dirty -- at the top of your bag.
- Close your bags in a secretive way so that you can tell if they have been opened.
- Don't place bags near the center aisle and never fall asleep with a phone or MP3 player in your hand.
- Write down the bus company, license plate, and keep your ticket.
The problem of night-bus theft is especially rife on the tourist buses from Khao San Road in Bangkok to the Thai islands and Chiang Mai. Sadly, even reporting thefts to the tourist police won't get your items back.
You can rent scooters throughout Thailand for between US $5 - $10 per day. If you're comfortable driving one, renting a motorbike can be a great, cheap way to explore islands and to visit sites outside of town. Unless you're an experienced rider, leave driving in the big cities for another trip. And remember: You drive on the left in Thailand!
Sadly, per the World Health Organization, Thailand has one of the highest numbers of fatal road accidents per capita in the world. Read more about safety and renting a motorbike in Southeast Asia.
Getting Around in Thailand
Use these specific instructions for moving along popular routes:
- Getting from Bangkok to Chiang Mai
- Getting from Chiang Mai to Bangkok
- How to get to Pai, Thailand
- Getting from Chiang Mai to Laos
- How to go from Chiang Mai to Koh Phangan