When traveling internationally, I am all about the public transportation. The public transportation in Thailand was prolific, crazy, great, and scary.
The main forms of getting around town and country included motorbikes, taxis, tuk-tuks, songteaws, and a myriad of buses and trains. In five months I had the opportunity to experience all of them. For more on motorbikes, check here: https://bethingsseeplaces.wordpress.com/2014/01/15/417/
When I first landed in Bangkok I was a fan of the regular taxi cabs. The one that ferried me from the airport to the hotel darted as well as it could between the congested traffic, without ever leaning on the horn. The taxis also all seemed to be brightly painted Toyota Corollas. I drive a Corolla myself, and I loved that there were so many flitting around Thailand. Can’t say why, I just thought it was cool. And I loved that they were all radiant fuchsia or half and half green and yellow. They were so happy and fun. After more experience living in Thailand, I lost my love of the Thai Taxi. I became accustomed to living in the slightly more rural province of Isaan, where tourists and foreigners were a little less prevalent. The attempts to hike up prices because we were foreigners were a lot more subdued. In the town I lived in, no one ever tried to charge us more money for anything. They wanted to give us things for free, even. After spending time there, where rides were free from friendly locals or thirty Thai baht on a bus, going to Bangkok where the cabbies wanted three to five hundred baht for one ride was aggravating. We were not some regular tourists, we were teachers, and had been living there long enough to know we were being ripped off by the big city drivers. We tried to talk them down, to little or no success. Or we would walk around until we found a tuk-tuk or a songteaw, usually cheaper than the taxis. At the big bus stations in Bangkok, however, we frequently had to give in to the insistent overpriced taxis.
Tuk-tuks are possibly one of Thailand’s most famous attractions, behind beaches, Buddhism, and hospitality. They are the motorized three-wheeled little vehicles seen buzzing around every city and most towns. They lined up at bus stations, outside malls, and any highly-trafficked area. They’re also brightly colored, with one front wheel, two back wheels, a low small roof, and a shabby manual gear shift. Pictures of the King and the Buddha hung in the front of the tuk-tuks by the drivers’ heads, as well as strings of flowers, real and fake. Often bits and pieces of the tuk-tuks were jimmied together with bottle caps and random pieces of metal. They rattled and sputtered all over the place, careening around corners with wild abandon. I was fairly certain that if I died in Thailand, it’d be in a tuk-tuk.
The side is open, the space for passengers fairly limited. They seem pretty ridiculous for a way to carry foreigners around. When I had the pleasure of riding around in them, I usually held on tight to anything that seemed the most solidly fused to the frame. One weekend a group of foreign teachers decided to go to the zoo, and we split up into two groups in a couple of tuk-tuks. There were four or five of us crammed into the back of a tuk-tuk, we had to get creative in our seating arrangement to make sure we all fit and no one fell out when turning a corner. There may have been some lap sitting and squatting on the floor.
Another tuk-tuk excursion involved me and my co-foreign English teacher trying to get around with our massive pieces of luggage. On our way from Bangkok to our town of Chonnabot we stopped in the city of Khon Kean for a night. We had to bring all of our belongings with us for our four month semester. We both had a large rolling suitcase, a big handbag, and a backpack. All stuffed all heavy. All these items traveling with us required vehicles that also had the space to hold them as well as us. So when we couldn’t find a taxi at the Khon Kaen bus station to take us to a hotel, we were forced to seek an alternative. A tuk-tuk driver spotted us and insisted on taking us. We laughed nervously and declined, gesturing to the massive bags we had with us. The man insisted that it was no problem and that he would take us, no problem. They hauled our crap into the tuk-tuk, how both suitcases and our own bodies all fit, I may never understand. We pulled our backpacks in after us to sit on our laps. We held onto the bags for dear life and sped off. My left knee peaked out of the side of the little car and I was terrified that I was going to get kneecapped by another tuk-tuk or a motorbike as it whizzed by.
If you spend time in Thailand, you can’t miss the tuk-tuks. They can be fun, wild rides, worth a go, but the best bang for your baht and a tad safer are the converted trucks known as songteaws.
Songteaws are basically pickup trucks with the back expanded and seats and roof installed. It’s like an open air mini-bus – pickup truck hybrid. It seats quite a few more than five people, and since it’s a shared ride it’s a lot cheaper than a taxi or a tuk-tuk. They’ll pick up people until the little aisle is full and the back end step has people hanging onto it. There were songteaws that ran from our town to the next one with a proper bus station that lasted about 20 minutes and cost ten baht. They are also seen driving around quite a bit, but are less abundant than the tuk-tuks or motorbikes. Some of them even have little buttons that buzz the driver in the front cab when someone wants to get out. I had many songteaw trips during my travels. I liked them. Good deal, nice airflow, a little more safety. They still had the habit of becoming cramped and crowded, but that’s how everything was. There was always space for one more body. Especially in the back of a truck. Pickups carried massive amounts of a lot of things in Thailand. Piled ridiculously high, way beyond any legal parameters we are used to the United States. Just seeing some of those trucks drive by on the road made me nervous. I saw everything from tires, to pineapples, to cows, and people riding high in the back of pickups.
The bus system was great. While schedules weren’t as structured or available to us in English, it all usually worked out just fine. Talking to our Thai Teachers once we were placed in our school helped us figure out times for our larger trips. One or two times one of the teachers talked to the bus companies or ticket windows for us in order to make sure we got the right tickets and got on the right bus. The rest of the time as soon as the bus stop attendants saw us, they’d start asking ‘where you go? Where you go?’ As long as we knew the name of where we wanted to go, we were ushered to the correct bus and issued a ticket. Smaller trips were typically just fine this way. Just show up at the bus station and say where you want to go, and they showed us where to go.
The larger trips that took longer, were farther away, or included overnight stints we liked to consult our Thai co-teachers. Some bus schedules were posted online in English. The bus stations that dealt with higher traffic had timetables in English as well, but since we lived in a small town where most of the big buses didn’t go through we consulted locals and friends to make sure we didn’t miss the buses we were trying to get on. There were only a few trips that required purchases beforehand. One long weekend we wanted to take an overnight bus to Chiang Mai in the north of Thailand, but Chiang Mai is such a popular destination that seats on the bus usually sold out, we were told. So one of the Thai teachers went with us to the city bus station and helped us buy tickets the day before. It was extremely nice having the Thai teachers volunteering to help us out on these trips. When we traveled on our own in other parts of the country, though, it wasn’t as necessary to have a native speaker of Thai with us. Especially in the big cities, tourist destinations, or most of the southern part of the country, where there were a lot of people who spoke English. Tourism in many places was so big, too, that there were little travel booths advertising to take you just about anywhere all over the place. I remember being scared I wouldn’t be able to navigate through a country with a language so different and difficult as Thai. In reality it wasn’t terrible at all. People were incredibly nice and willing to help.
There are several classes of bus to keep in mind when planning trips. Our first long bus ride from Bangkok to Khon Kaen, about a five or six hour journey, we got tickets on a First Class or VIP bus. Unfortunately I still can’t remember which was supposed to be better, First Class or the VIPs. Either way, Air Conditioned is definitely the one to go for on any long trip. Smaller jaunts some of the buses have rotating fans, but with the Southeast Asian heat and humidity it doesn’t always help, especially when they squeeze as many bodies into the bus as possible. This first long bus trip, whether First Class or VIP, was air conditioned, with plush reclining seats, two levels, personal TV screens that played music and movies, and Wi-Fi. This was by far the nicest bus I have ever been a passenger on. It was amazing. The bus officer, all buses had them – a man or woman in charge of fees and directing passengers – ushered us to seats at the front of the top level and gave us blankets with meals and a snack. The AC was so good we needed the blankets.
Despite best efforts, we never found a bus quite this nice again. I had trips on ones almost as nice, with reclining seats, high powered AC, blankets, and snacks. Those were usually decent or enjoyable trips, and they didn’t typically pack people into the aisles on these nicer buses. The smaller regional buses were another story. They’d have smaller individual seats, no reclining, and fans in the aisle way that I almost always hit my head on when walking to and from my seat. They packed those buses to their absolute max; people sitting on the luggage rack area in the back, people standing up crammed in the aisle way holding onto the back of the actual seats. I only had one short trip in which I had to stand in the aisle the whole way. My personal space and courtesy bubble suffered on that one. I was so worried about falling into someone’s lap or knocking into their head as the bus swayed and turned. It was made worse by the backpack I was carrying, bumping into people at any slight hint of movement.
As far as trains go, I only had one journey on a sleeper train going from Bangkok down to the island of Koh Pha Ngan. Sleeper trains are the way to go if you’re going to do overnight travel. We started off in nice big seats, facing another passenger, with a table in between. An attendant offered us dinner and drinks, they served the food, and a little bit later came back through to help set up the beds. The seats folded out to form sleeping surfaces, and curtains were put up to allow each passenger their privacy. There was a top bunk and a bottom bunk. I snuggled down on a top bunk, which was surprisingly comfortable. It was glorious to be able to sleep laying down after having several trips shoved into an upright seat with no reclining or foot space and once no AC. After three or four in the morning, however, I had a hard time going back to sleep because I worried that I had missed my stop. I wasn’t sure if someone was going to go through announcing stops or if I’d even hear them. We had been scheduled to pull into our station around 3:30 but, in traditional Thai fashion, we were late. Someone did indeed go through the cars getting people to get off the train, so I didn’t have anything to worry about.
After the train, we caught a small bus that chauffeur us to a dock, where we got into the aquatic part of our travel. In southern Thailand there are of course many, beautiful islands, where ferries and speed boats and long tails serve as the taxis, buses, and tuk-tuks. I spent four hours on one ferry, where it would have been smart to go under deck. Instead I stayed topside and was subjected to several long hours of whipping salt wind and intense sunshine. I also got to meet several people on the ride, too, with whom I later met up on another part of my travels. The worst boat ride was when I ventured to the most southern Thai island called Koh Lipe. The only boat there in the slow season was a speed boat, where I was stuck in the front and felt every bump in the waves twenty-fold. It was awful, and jarring, and I felt like my spine compacted by two inches. When I left the island I sat in the back farther in the proper seating area, and the trip was much less painful. Even fun.
Some islands require passage on the long-tail boats to get around. If getting around on one of these, I’ve found it best to wear sandals or easily removable shoes. Many times you have to wade in and out from the shore to get to these boats, and it’s just easier with water-friendly shoes.
All in all, getting around is much easier and simpler than I had anticipated before leaving. Transportation worries should not be a deterrent to any travel. So go have fun. Ride on a tuk-tuk and a long-tail, and always go for A/C when possible.