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Thailand Transport
Car/Bus/Train/Plane/Motorbike


"It's not true that everyone who comes to Thailand wishes to get around Thailand.  Plenty of people who arrive perpetually sit on their asses or pay to massage someone else's."  Doug Knell, Doug's Republic


But I should discuss transportation anyway, most of which is very economical in Thailand.   The one exception to cost-effective transport is buying a car.  You will get screwed on that purchase.  Think of European car prices without the earning power.  A Mini Cooper S in 2009 cost about USD 100,000 in Thailand.  In the U.S., the maximum suggested retail price on a 2010 Mini Cooper S, a price no one but a dim wit would actually pay, is about USD 25,000.  Used cars are an especially poor deal in the Land Where You Won't Be Smiling after seeing the sticker price. A car may only depreciate by half in 8-10 years, great for sellers, but disgusting for buyers.  Sky high import duties and excise taxes pervert the price of even the lousy lemon from home you considered importing, which probably wouldn't be appropriate anyway because the Thais drive on the left side of the road. 

You've been warned.

Rental Car Motorbike  |  PlaneTrain Bus

motorbike Thailand

Doug's typical way of getting around

 
Rental Car

It's odd that with the purchase prices of vehicles drifting towards kings' ransom levels that car rentals can be so reasonable.  On more than one occasion, we've rented a Toyota Vios, automatic transmission, not more than a year old, for USD 22-25 per day.  I'll admit that I've gotten better deals on rental cars in the U.S.; and in Korea, we scored a USD 20/day deal for a Korean version of a Mini Cooper.  But, in general, no one would complain about $22-25 for a near brand new car rented in tourist areas in the low season.   On the Andaman Coast, we paid more.  $30 for a Toyota, manual transmission, that was 4-5 years old.  All these rental outlets were ma & pa places.   We've never rented from an Avis or Budget over here.

Insurance?   Whenever we've rented a car in Thailand, we were told there was comprehensive insurance on the car.  Key word: told.  We were not given an option to pay extra for comprehensive insurance, which a good share of the time exceeds the actual daily cost of the rental.  It was simply included, so they said.  Thankfully, we were never in a position to test whether the insurance really would've been applied had we run into trouble.  As they say, the best insurance is the one you never need.

car rental Thailand
$25/day bought some great October memories without anything illegal being involved

A sales ploy from the multinational chains is to get you to believe that they're the only ones who really provide insurance.  This is Thailand, so there is a possibility that is true.  On the other hand, why would anyone rent you an almost brand new Toyota Vios, costing megabucks in Thailand, and not insure it for damage and theft?   As an experiment, my girlfriend went to a rental car outlet, showed her Korean license written only in Korean, and asked them if they'd honor that to rent a car.   No worries, they said.  Since none of the Thais could read Korean, the license could have been a Korean library card or discount video card or some card in another person's name.   The Thais are either real trusting of any and all, willing to rent a car to someone whose ID they can't even read, or maybe they've been prudent beforehand and insured the car, so that in the worst case, they're able to make a claim on its value.   I'd guess they've thought over all the risks and insured the car for damage and that you'll only be responsible for their deductible.

I can state unequivocally that in all the occasions I've rented a car in Thailand and returned it, never did the rental agency go over the car with a fine toothed comb, spot a tiny nick you needed a magnifying glass to see, and then assess me an additional charge.  "Trustworthy" Enterprise in the United States did this and billed me $50 for a dent that was probably already there.  Local agencies are also not finicky about the tank containing exactly the same amount of gasoline as was there when you first stepped inside the vehicle, then adding on a 75-100% surcharge on gasoline costs to refill it to the same point.  Enterprise was way ahead of their time.  They charged me over $3/gallon to refill my tank years before this price became the norm. 

If you buy a car, get insurance on it!   Insurance will only cost you around USD 500 per year.  I've been told there's a very simple rule of thumb the Thais apply to any motor accident involving a foreigner and a Thai:  it's always the foreigner's fault.  There are four types of coverage.  Get Class 1, which covers you for all accidents, your fault or not, because officially, any accident with a Thai will always be your fault. 

Motorbike

Once you arrive in a new town, with Bangkok being the one exception, the easiest and most economical way of getting around is by motorbike -- you sitting atop your own motorbike and doing your own driving. Suzuki, Yamaha, and Honda bikes, between 100cc and 125cc, are available for hire in all tourist towns and even in some non-tourist towns.   How much you'll pay depends on how competitive the market is.  In Hua Hin, Kanchanaburi, and populated Phuket beaches, you'll pay around 150B/day for a 4-gear manual and 200B/day for an automatic.  By the week, 1,000B (manual) and 1,200B (automatic).  By the month, 3,000B walking in off the street, and if you know the renter personally, possibly as low as 2,000B for an older bike.  These rates are negotiable, and I've found that you can many times get the automatics for the same price as the manual ones if the outlet has plenty of bikes to spare.   Prices rise by 30-50% in less competitive markets.  In Udonthani, I rented a manual bike that had seen much better days for 180B.  The rental agency wanted 220B/day for it but I was able to negotiate the price downwards.  There were no other rental outlets.  The lowest price I've seen on motorbikes per day was in Chiang Mai -- 80B for a bike more than a decade old.  Filling up a tank won't cost more than USD 3 or 4. 

motorbike Thailand
Doug posing intimately with various rentals over the years

If you are living in Thailand, buying a motorbike is the way to go.  A brand new 100 to 125 cc bike, adequate for getting around Thai towns, costs between 35,000 and 50,000 baht new.  Thais can get very attractive financing plans at even these prices, allowing them to pay off the bike over years.   Even with interest, the 150B/day or 1,000B/week prices they rent the bike to you let them make a profit.  As a foreigner, you must pay the full cost of the bike up front.

Bike shops often have used bikes out front for sale.  I've never seen one for sale for less than 22,000B.  The advantage of buying a motorbike from a shop is that it the bike has supposedly been tuned up and checked mechanically and comes with some kind of limited warranty.   We managed to buy a used Suzuki Beat for 17,000B off a foreigner returning to Europe.  Since we were paying 3,000B/month for a bike before we purchased, the Suzuki paid for itself in 6 months, and as of this writing, we've had it almost 3 years.  Lately, I saw some more powerful models at 400cc available used for 54,000B.

Obviously, buying directly off another owner is best -- if you can score that arrangement.  We were lucky, and the seller let me test drive the bike for 4 days before I made up my mind.  It is not easy finding a seller parting ways with a bike in great condition for an equivalently great price.

Be sure to transfer ownership of the bike legally.   In Thailand, this is an intentionally convoluted process which involves getting a certificate from the immigration office proving you live at a certain place.  You take this certificate along with the current owner's Green Book and hand it, along with about $25, to your local motor vehicle department.  Fortunately, we did not have to endure more time-consuming Thai bureaucracy.  The owner had purchased the bike used at the Suzuki outlet in town.   We gave the Suzuki shop the money and the bike's Green Book and they did the transfer for us in two weeks.

Transferring the bike legally avoids later issues if you're ever in an accident.  If a bike were confiscated by authorities, only the registered owner can retrieve it.  If he's back in Europe, good luck ever seeing your bike again.  

Annually, you are expected to renew compulsory insurance cover on your bike.  I've read that this currently costs around 350B, but since we renew ours directly through the bike shop, the bill comes to 650B but the shop handles all the paper work.  This insurance should actually be called voluntary compulsory insurance.  No one knocks on your door or sends you a renewal form when your insurance is due.   One year I visited the bike shop in July instead of January to renew.  They only billed me for a half a year.   There are more comprehensive plans you can purchase, and if I were driving a bike over 150cc at lightning speeds across the open potholed roles, much like I've seen Thais do, those plans would've already been purchased.

Bus

This would be your most convenient, quickest, and cheapest way to get around for long distance travel.  The rickety non-aircon versions are rarely used by visitors for intracity travel, as local taxis are so reasonable that saving a few baht becomes a headache.

The web site authority on bus travel throughout Thailand is here.  Unfortunately for most readers, the site is entirely in Thai.  Good luck wasting your time! 

It used to be that Bangkok was the center of bus networks throughout the country.  All roads led to Bangkok and from there, to other locales.  This is slowly changing.  In 2007, if I wanted to catch a bus from Hua Hin (230 km south of Bangkok) north to Chiang Mai or eastwards to Ubon Ratchathani, I had to travel to Bangkok first.  Depending upon my final destination, this might involve having to catch a taxi between two different Bangkok bus terminals.  Nowadays, there are direct buses from Hua Hin to Chiang Mai or Ubon Ratchathani, bypassing Bangkok completely.
Going first class in Thailand

Bus travel works on a class system.  The uppermost tier is the VIP bus.  The moniker is more flattering than the real experience.  VIP buses are sometimes double decker buses, comfortable, with strong air con.  Depending on your tolerance, the air con may feel like an ice bucket.  Complimentary refreshments are served, like sweet buns, a carton of juice, and a fried snack.  On long journeys the bus stops at a road side stall and you get a complimentary meal.   One step down is first class.  The air con is still ice locker quality, perfect for storing frozen fruits, you still get refreshments some of the time, but the seats may not be as spacious or recline as far back.  Second class buses are where you start seeing a decline.  The air con could work or may coming through the vents like a slight breeze.  The buses sell out their seats but never truly sell out.  Millions are welcomed on board for standing room only.  Bring a chicken, bring a duck, bring the kitchen sink -- no one cares.  Third class is where things really slide.  There might be a spinning fan above your head.  Seats are more school bus style.  Some third class buses may actually be reconverted school buses. 
All the things you can't legally do on a Thai bus

Based on these descriptions and with bus travel being so economical, why would you ever take second or third or tenth class buses?  The answer is that you wouldn't . . . voluntarily.  There will be instances were you're left with no choice, that the only bus leaving for a locale of your choosing is a low quality bus.  Whenever I do a visa run to Ranong, I leave on a first class bus.  There are no first class buses at suitable times on the return trip, and I have to grab whatever is going.   When my father and I traveled from Chiang Rai to Sukhothai, we had to take a second class bus.  That was the only type of bus plying the route.  Usually, there are only one or two VIP and first class buses leaving for a destination per day.  If you miss those, you're stuck on second class or worse.  

Buying bus tickets in Thailand can be tricky.  Follow the advice here.

Plane

John Denver sang about "leaving on  jet plane" way back in '69.   Isn't it about time you started making a habit of leaving on one?

Several airlines share the dometic Thai skies and if fares are booked far enough in advance, they're not much more expensive than the train.  Distances aren't far.  You can fly from Bangkok to Chiang Mai in an hour.

Airline Where they fly and for how bloody much
Air Asia Flies from Bangkok's newer Suvarnabhumi Airport to Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Hat Yai, Krabi, Nakhon Si Thammarat, Narathiwat, Phuket, Surat Thani, Ubon Ratchathani, and Udon Thani. Routes are still Bangkok-centric but changing.   You can now fly from Udonthani to Phuket, from Phuket to Chiang Mai and Ubon Ratchathani, and from Chiang Mai to Hat Yai.   A sample Bangkok-Chiang Mai free booked a month in advance is about USD 65. 
Nok Air Flying out Bangkok's old Don Muang Airport, Nok Air, while slightly more expensive than Air Asia, flies more places in Thailand.  In addition to the Air Asia locations mentioned, sweet Nok goes to Nakhon Phanom, Phitsanalouk, Sakhon Nakhon, and Trang.  A Bangkok-Chiang Mai fare booked a month in advance with Nok is about USD 85.
Orient Thai Airlines Another airline flying out of the old Don Muang Airport.   Orient Thai doesn't fly that many places, only to Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Hat Yai, Phuket, and Trang.  Orient Thai's selling point is its prices.  It's the cheapest of the three budget airlines, and you'll still be able to obtain the same cheap fare even if you book just a day in advance, provided there is availability.  Air Asia, on the other hand, charges substantially more for fares booked close to the departure date, to the point that if you book just days in advance, you might get a better bargain booking with a non-budget airline.

 
The existence of bargain airlines means you can now fly one way to a Thai destination, saving time, and work your way back via bus or train.  
Train

Thailand has a comprehensive train network.  The trains don't go everywhere, but they do go to all the major places.

Trains are not as cheap as buses and they can take almost twice as long on some routes.  Why then would you ever take a train?

Comfort.  Moving around on a train is easier.  For a marginal extra cost, you can buy a place in a sleeper compartment which comes with bedding and pillows.  Ladies come around and sell drinks and food.  You don't get that on a bus.
Thailand train
Not quite the Orient Express but it'll do

Not so long ago, I needed to travel from Nong Khai, near the border with Laos, to Bangkok.  The last bus left Nong Khai around 5:30 PM and would've put me in Bangkok around 2:30 AM.  For not a lot more money, I could get a sleeper in a second class aircon train compartment, leaving Nong Khai at 7:15 PM and getting me to Bangkok at 8 AM.  In this case, I wanted to arrive in Bangkok later, at a more convenient time when more public transport is operational.   On the train I was able to get a real night's sleep, something I cannot do on a bus.

One thing you must understand is that Thailand's train network is composed of 4 different lines:  the Southern line, the Northern line, the Eastern line, and the Northeastern line.  If you're traveling from Nong Khai (northeastern line) to an ultimate destination of Hua Hin (southern line), you have to change trains in Bangkok.   Trains in Thailand can be notoriously late, so it can be risky purchasing a ticket in advance on a connecting line.   In my instance, there was a southern train leaving Bangkok at 9:20 AM and arriving in Hua Hin at 1 PM.  I would've had only an hour layover in Bangkok, enough time to leisurely have a coffee and a donut and find the next train.  Another way of looking at it is that one hour doesn't provide much cushioning room if the first train arrives late. 

What if your first train does arrive late?  Would the Thai railway authorities offer a refund?  I doubt it.  Thailand is not a nation renowned for ever giving your money back.  Instead, they would offer to put you on a later train at a time that may be inconvenient for you.

Fares for longer journeys seem to be a better deal than shorter ones.  I arrived in Bangkok at 8 AM, as scheduled, and went to purchase a ticket to Hua Hin.  The State Railways web site said the fare in first class was 202 baht.  When I went to pay, they wanted almost 400B.  It was an express train and there was no other option.  A mini bus, on the other hand, costs only 180B.   I wasn't willing to pay more than double the minibus fare to arrive in Hua Hin an hour later.

 


 

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  Transport in Thailand. Take a car or rental car. Make sure you have insurance. Or ride a motorbike through Thailand. Maybe take a train on Thailand's great railway system. Is a bus good? Interested in a plane with Air Asia, Nok Air, or Orient Thair bus,railway,train,plane