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Transport in Thailand can be chaotic and there are many different options when it comes to getting around. Most long-distance travel is via bus, and motorbikes are commonly used for short distances in the larger cities.
While most foreigners get around safely, the country does have high road accident rates, particularly when it comes to motorcycles. The Thai capital is especially notorious – the traffic in Bangkok is among the worst in the world, and expats should take extra care when driving in the city.
Thailand has a fairly good public transport system which consists of buses, trains, motorcycles, taxis and tuk-tuks.
Public transport in Thailand
The train network in Thailand is run by the State Railway of Thailand, a government-owned company. The network consists of four main routes which travel to the north, the northeast, the east and the south. These railway lines intersect in Bangkok, so when travelling long distances it is usually necessary to change lines.
Trains are slower than buses but are often more comfortable for long-distance travel, particularly for long journeys such as those between Bangkok and Chiang Mai.
Any part of Thailand can be accessed from Hualamphong Station in Bangkok and tickets can be purchased in advance. There are three types of trains available – ordinary, rapid and express trains – as well as three classes of travel, from private first-class booths to third-class seats.
The metro in Bangkok is the only rapid transit system of its kind in Thailand. It currently consists of a handful of lines with more planned or in the process of being built.
Buses are a common form of transport over long distances, providing access to some of the country’s more remote areas. Luxury long-distance buses, known as VIP buses, have air conditioning and reclining seats to make long-distance travel more comfortable. VIP bus tickets should be bought in advance due to limited seating.
Buses are not used as much within cities as between them, although Bangkok does have a well-developed local bus service with around 100 lines. To get on a bus, passengers wait at a bus stop and make a waving motion with the palm of the hand facing downwards as the bus approaches. The fare is paid on board the bus.
Taxis in Thailand
There are taxis in most Thai cities, although many of them do not have meters so fares will have to be negotiated before getting into the vehicle.
The most popular taxis for tourists in Thailand are saamlaws, better known as tuk-tuks. These are three-wheeled vehicles which are either motorised or non-motorised and can carry up to two or three passengers.
Motorcycle taxis are also popular and are often the fastest way of getting around cities. They are known to weave in and out of traffic, however, and might be a frightening experience for inexperienced passengers.
Also known as ‘red buses or red trucks’, songthaews are another popular choice of transport for expats in Thailand. These passenger vehicles are adapted from a pick-up or large truck and used as a share taxi or bus. Songthaews are used both within towns and cities, and for longer routes between towns and villages.
A word of caution however, while drivers often travel slowly, there are no barriers to stop anyone from falling out the back of the truck. It is advised to seat children and elderly in the middle of the bus, sandwiched between others.
Driving in Thailand
Although driving in Thailand can be frustrating, it is important to remain calm and be patient. Massive traffic volumes mean that it is usually better to use public transport within the cities, while some expats who regularly commute in urban areas hire a private driver. Traffic jams will ensure that getting to work is a slow process no matter who is driving.
Driving between cities is far more manageable, and having a personal vehicle is often the best way to travel through the Thai countryside. The system of highways in Thailand is of a relatively high standard and links every part of the country, with most roads being in an acceptable condition. However, the roads on Ko Samui and Ko Pha-Ngan are infamously dangerous. Road accidents are one of the top causes of death for foreigners in Thailand.
Expats should drive defensively and be prepared for erratic drivers as well as children and animals in the road. Driving in rural areas at night is not recommended. Drunk driving is a problem in Thailand and many cars do not have working headlights. Buses driving recklessly on country roads can also be a hazard at night.
Expats will need to apply for a Thai driving licence after three months in the country, and some insurers require the driver to have a Thai driver’s licence to be fully covered. Licences can be applied for at local transport offices or the Department of Land Transport in Bangkok.
Air travel in Thailand
Air travel is a fast and affordable way to travel longer distances in Thailand. Many low-cost airlines operate in the country, with Air Asia being one of the most popular.
Thailand’s largest airport is Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok and the national carrier is Thai Airways. The other international airports in Thailand are in Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Hat-Yai and Phuket, but the country has close to 100 airports in total.
Suvarnabhumi Airport can be reached via the Bangkok-Chon Buri Motorway, several city bus routes and an express rail link.
Cycling in Thailand
Cycling enthusiasts will find that this is not the best way to get around in Thailand. There are very few dedicated cycle lanes and the erratic behaviour of drivers makes cycling on the roads an unwise decision.
Walking in Thailand
Pedestrians are vulnerable in Thailand, especially in Bangkok's notoriously busy streets. Some areas in the city have overhead walkways above the streets to allow pedestrians to cross, which is effective and safe, but other traffic controls like pedestrian crossings are often completely ignored by drivers.