Thailand - Transportation

Transportation in Thailand is varied and chaotic, with no one dominant means of transport. Bus transport dominates in long distance travel and in Bangkok, with motorcycles dominating in rural areas for short trips, supplanting bicycles. In Bangkok, public motorcycle taxis take people to their front door. Slow rail travel has long been a rural long distance transport mechanism. An overwhelming number of taxis can be found in Bangkok. Recently there has been a surge in air travel, urban rail, and private automobiles, especially among tourists, expats, upper class and upcoming middle class. Areas with navigable waterways often have boats or boat service, and many innovative means of transport exist such as tuk-tuk, vanpool, songthaew, or even elephants in rural areas.


Pan-ASEAN low cost carrier AirAsia has great coverage of international and domestic routes in Thailand and offers steeply discounted tickets if booked well in advance; however, prices rise steadily as planes fill up. Normally it may be the cheapest (sometimes even cheaper than bus or train!) option, if booked at least a week or two in advance. They fly their (quite new) A320s from Bangkok to a number of places domestically, as well as to Cambodia, China, Macau, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Vietnam and Indonesia. Recently, they started to display "all-inclusive" prices during booking (which, however, still do not include optional surcharges such as baggage fees). On-line booking is straightforward and can be done even using the mobile phone, but must be done at least twenty-four hours in advance; ticket sales at the check-in desk close one hour before the departure time.

Bangkok Airways promotes itself as "Asia's Boutique Airline", and has a monopoly on flights to its own airports at Ko Samui (now shared with Thai Airways), Sukhothai and Trat. Quite an expensive and "posh" option; however, is the Discovery Airpass with fixed per segment rates can be good value, especially if used to fly to Siem Reap, (Cambodia) or Luang Prabang, (Laos). Note that the Discovery Airpass can now only be purchased from abroad.

Nok Air took to the skies in 2004 sporting lurid paints scheme with a bird's beak painted on the nose. Owned mostly by Thai Airways, they compete with Air Asia on price and, with a fairly comprehensive domestic network, are a pretty good choice overall. They've ran into some serious turbulence in 2008, cutting their flights by two thirds, but now seem to recover as the oil prices went down in 2009.

One-Two-Go is infamous for their 2007 fatal crash in Phuket, and for their old McDonnell Douglas MD-82 planes. After having their fleet grounded in late 2008 - early 2009 due to relatively high fuel consumption of these planes, they're in the Thai skies again now, and their tickets' price being a bit more than that of Thai AirAsia. it's often the cheapest option during the last week before flying... if you are not afraid.

SGA Airline now joint with Nok Air, is currently the only passenger carrier offering flights between Chiang Mai-Pai, Mae Hong Son, Nan and Chiang Rai.

Thai Airways is the most reliable, frequent, and comfortable but usually more expensive than the alternatives (look for their promotions, though). Travel agents often sell only THAI Airways (and Bangkok Airways) tickets; you can also book on-line. Thai Airways is a member of Star Alliance; all domestic flights, except some promotional fares, give at least 500 Star Alliance miles, which may (partially) compensate the price difference.

Major international airports

  • Don Mueang International Airport (DMK) (Old Bangkok Int'l)
  • Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) (New Bangkok Int'l)
  • Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX)
  • Chiang Rai International Airport (CEI)
  • Hat Yai International Airport (HDY)
  • Phuket International Airport (HKT)

Shipping Ports

The country's pre -eminent port was Bangkok, which in the early 1980s handled 98 percent of imports and 65 percent of exports as well as about 40 percent of coastal traffic. More than 4,000 foreign vessels were reported to have called at Bangkok in 1983, and about 24 million tons of cargo were handled, including coastal cargo. Two other ports of some significance in international trade were Si Racha and Sattahip, both located southeast of Bangkok on the Gulf of Thailand. Both ports were used primarily for exporting agricultural products. Sattahip's deep-water naval facility was also used to handle imports of heavy equipment.

The port of Bangkok had experienced continuous growth since the 1950s, and, through loans from the World Bank, its facilities had been substantially expanded to handle the increased traffic. A major drawback of the port was its limitation on vessel size and draft, which forced ships of more than 10,000 tons or 8.5- meter draft to offload at the mouth of the Chao Phraya, some 27 kilometers downstream. As part of the Southern Seaboard Development Program, the government in 1986 approved plans to build a new deep-water port at Laem Chabang in Chon Buri Province to supplement Bangkok's Khlong Toei port. An industrial estate was to be built close to the port area for export-oriented industries, such as electronics, and for agro-based industries, such as food processing and rubber products. Under the same programme, a new port and industrial park was to be constructed at Mapthaphut to serve the petrochemical, fertilizer, and soda ash industries.

Some thirty smaller ports were found along the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea. About half were fishing ports, and the remainder served multiple purposes, including coastal services, export and import functions, and fisheries operations. Coastal operations were in general small. In the early 1980s, the government also had under consideration development of deep-water ports at Songkhla on the east coast of the peninsula, through which rubber was exported, and Phuket on the west coast. Phuket served as an outlet for both tin and rubber exports.

In 1985 the Thai merchant fleet consisted of 71 freighters, 2 bulk carriers, and 25 tankers, totaling roughly 700,000 tons. Regular cargo service was provided between Thailand and Japan, and one shipping company made regular calls at West European ports. An unknown number of small coastal vessels conducted trade with Malaysia and Singapore.

Local Transport

  • Songthaew

A songthaew is a truck-based vehicle with a pair of bench seats in the back, one on either side — hence the name, which means "two rows" in Thai. In English tourist literature, they're occasionally called "minibuses". By far the most common type is based on a pick-up truck and has a roof and open sides. Larger types start life as small lorries, and may have windows, and an additional central bench; smaller types are converted micro-vans, with a front bench facing backwards and a rear bench facing forwards. Songthaews are operated extensively as local buses (generally the most economical way to travel shorter distances) and also as taxis; sometimes the same vehicle will be used for both. Be careful if asking a songthaew to take you to someplace if there is nobody in the back, the driver might charge you the taxi price. In this case, check the price of the ride before embarking.

  • Tuk-tuk

The name tuk-tuk is used to describe a wide variety of small/lightweight vehicles. The vast majority have three wheels; some are entirely purpose-built (eg the ubiquitous Bangkok tuk-tuk), others are partially based on motorcycle components (primarily engines, steering, front suspension, fuel tank, driver’s seat). A relatively recent development is the four wheeled tuk-tuk (basically a microvan-songthaew) as found in Phuket.

  • Taxi

Metered taxis are ubiquitous in Bangkok and starting to become more popular in Chiang Mai, but rare elsewhere in the country. When available, they are an excellent means of transport - insist on the meter. Beware of taxis which idle around touristy areas and wait for people. They are looking for a tourist who will take their taxi without using a meter. Always use the meter!

  • Motorbike

As is the case throughout virtually all of Asia, motorcycles (motosai) are the most common form of transport overall; the most popular types are the 100cc-125cc step-through models. These are very widely used as taxis, with fares starting from as low as 10 Baht. Negotiate the fare with the driver before using his service, otherwise you may be charged more than you expect. Motorcycles can be rented without difficulty in many locations. Rates start at around 150 Baht/day for recent 100-125cc semi-automatic (foot operated gearchange, automatic clutch) step-through models, 200 Baht/day for fully automatic scooters; larger capacity models can also easily be found, although the rates reflect the risks - up to around 2500 Baht/day for the very latest model high capacity sport bikes, such as the Honda CBR1000RR. In all cases, lower prices will apply if paying upfront for more than a week or so; in some cases, long-distance travel may be prohibited. Motorcycle rentals do not include insurance, and both motorcycling accidents and motorbike thefts are common.

  • Rental Car

Driving your own car in Thailand is not for the faint-hearted, and many rental companies can supply drivers at a very reasonable price. Prices without insurance for a self-driven car start from around 800 Baht/day for small cars, and from as little as 600 Baht/day for open-top jeeps; cars with insurance start at just under 1000 Baht/day, and come down to around 5600 Baht/week or 18000 Baht/month.

Driving is (usually, but not always!) on the left hand side of the road. As of June 2008, fuel at large petrol stations is 37-41 Baht/litre. Small curbside vendors who pump by hand from drums and/or pour from bottles charge a few Baht more.

Cars can be rented without difficulty in many locations. It's worth paying a little more than the absolute minimum in order to ensure, insurance is actually included.

More reputable agencies require that valid licences be produced: foreigners who do not have a Thai driving license, must carry a valid International Driving Permit. Even if you manage to rent a car without an IDP, not having one will invalidate the insurance and count against you in the event of an accident.

A common rental scam involves the owner taking a deposit, and then later refusing to refund it in full on the basis that the customer is responsible for previous damage; the Tourist Police (dial 1155) may be able to help. Another common scam involves the owner having someone follow the rented vehicle and later "steal" it, using a set of spare keys. Always report thefts: a "stolen" vehicle may mysteriously turn up as soon as the police become involved.

  • By Boat

One of the Thais' many names for themselves is jao naam, the Water Lords, and from the river expresses of Bangkok to the fishing trawlers of Phuket, boats remain an indispensable way of getting around many parts of the country.

Perhaps, the most identifiably Thai boat is the long-tail boat (reua hang yao), a long, thin wooden boat with the propeller at the end of a long 'tail' stretching from the boat. This makes them supremely maneuverable even in shallow waters, but they're a little underpowered for longer trips and you'll get wet if it's even a little choppy. Long-tails usually act as taxis that can be chartered, although prices vary widely - figure on 300-400 Baht for a few hours' rental, or up to 1500 for a full day. In some locations like Krabi, long-tails run along set routes and charge fixed prices per passenger.

Modern, air-conditioned speedboat services, sometimes ferries (departure every 30 mins) also run from the Surat Thani to popular islands like Ko Samui and Ko Pha Ngan. Truly long-distance services (eg. Bangkok to any other major city) have, however, effectively ceased to exist as buses; planes and even trains are faster. Safety measures are rudimentary and ferries and speedboats do sink occasionally, so avoid overloaded ships in poor weather, and scope out the nearest life jackets when on board.