Driving in Thailand is not only safe and easy, but it also allows you to get away from the regular tourist trails and to go off exploring on your own. Quite a few of the travel articles that I have written for thai-blogs.com are about places which are not served by normal local transport. Or, if they are, you will have to take a combination of different transportation methods. Renting a car while on holiday just makes everything a lot easier when talking about getting from point A to point B. The only problem, is that the price of petrol has gone up so much these days which makes long road trips relatively expensive. It now costs us about 31 baht per litre compared to 15 baht when I first started to do these road trips in Thailand. I used to get plenty of change from a 1,000 baht note when I filled up. But, not any longer. It is quite often cheaper to go by train or bus. It can even sometimes be cheaper to fly. But then, you wouldn’t have any transport when you get to your destination. I really like the flexibility of having my own transport. I also like the journey to get there as that is often half the adventure.
Finding good maps in Thailand is always a problem. It is true that they are certainly getting better compared to say ten years ago, however, you will find that there is very little detail which makes it hard to find some of the out of the way places. On most of my road trips I take just two books. The first is “Thailand Road Atlas” published by Lotus Image Advertising for 350 baht. This also has detailed maps of all the main cities in each of the 76 provinces. I also like that it has road distance guides and also samples of routes to take for the major destinations. My new favourite map book is “Thailand Delux Atlas” published by Thinknet for 550 baht. It has more detail which means that smaller roads are included. It also has more city maps which are useful to find hotels. Both of these map books are bilingual which helps when you need to ask a Thai person for directions. However, I have learned from experience, that a lot of Thai people cannot read maps. Which might also explain why good maps are hard to find.
Another good planner these days is the computer and Internet. You can buy CD-Roms by Thinknet that quite often give more detail than their print versions. Their “Road Map of Thailand” is often useful for me to find places that are not found on print versions. You can search in both English or Thai. You can also, for example, see a list of all temples for a particular province. It has a built in ruler that helps work out distances and so therefore travel times. You can also add notes to the map and then print it out for when you are on the road. They also have more detailed CD-ROM maps for particular areas such as Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket. I also find Google Maps on the Internet useful as they have recently updated the maps of Thailand so that it has both Thai and English place names. You can also view a hybrid version which shows both satellite and road maps combined. This makes it easier to mark the exact location of places that you want to visit. You can then print these out. However, not all areas in Thailand have satellite pictures yet. If you visit my ThailandPhotoMap.com website you will get an idea of how useful this can be.
I think I have done my fair share of backpacking over the years. Travelling across Asia with only what you can carry on your back teaches you some valuable life lessons. For a start, it shows that you can really survive on the basic necessities of life. Anything else in life is just excess baggage. However, those days are gone and I am now what you could perhaps call the “lazy backpacker”. This is because when I go backpacking, I now go by car and I take everything including the kitchen sink. Well, maybe not quite, but it is near enough. As well as all the maps, I also take half a dozen different guidebooks. Then there is the camera equipment, chargers and laptop which is all necessary for me to write and process the pictures as I go along. I learned the hard way not to leave all the work for when I get back home. In a short five day road trip I just finished, I took about 3,000 pictures. I also have an Internet phone as I need to keep in touch wherever I am.
Depending on where I am going and who with, it is sometimes a good idea to take snacks and drinks as well as eating utensils. You never know when you might need them. I even take a kettle so that I can have a cup of coffee in the morning or some Mama pot noodles. On some occasions, like beach holidays, I have even taken a hot plate so that I can cook some basic meals for everyone. It is nice having the flexibility if food is not available or it is really expensive due to being a major tourist area. These days, I always make sure that I have my portable DVD player and a stack of new movies. I don’t always use it, but it is nice to have on days when we might be trapped in hotel rooms due to rain storms. Books and magazines like Readers Digest are also good.
Another advantage of driving is that you don’t need to worry so much where you will be staying each night. I don’t think that I have ever booked a hotel room while travelling in Thailand. That is not to say I can always find a room on the first try. But, with my car, I can easily just drive to the next hotel. Lonely Planet is usually quite good for finding hotels or I might resort to my map book to help find locations in a town that have a high density of places to stay. However, sometimes I just use my eyes. I don’t always stay in guesthouses these days as they are not always good value for money. Granted, you will always get a cheap price for bunk beds, shared bathrooms and a ceiling fan. However, if you ask for air-conditioning, they often just double the price for exactly the same room. One guesthouse I tried the other day wanted 600 baht for a room with air. It was a very basic room with a bed and no other furniture. I went around the corner to a hotel and they had a room with air for only 400 baht. This included cable t.v. and a fridge with two complimentary bottles of cold water. On top of that, breakfast was included in the price.
The main reason I like guesthouses is that it is a great place to share stories with other people. In my backpacking days I always found it invaluable to meet people going the opposite direction. Hotels are more solitary as you stay in your room and there is no communal area where you can meet other travellers. However, a good reason that I like hotels is the security. With so much equipment, I want to decrease the chance of someone sneaking into my room in the middle of the night while I am sleeping. Before check-in at a hotel, I always ask them if I can see the room first. Here I not only check to see if the shower and air-conditioning works, but I also check to see if there is a lock on the inside of the door and if the window locks are working. You will be surprised the number of hotels where the windows cannot be locked or even shut properly. I also always look for off-street parking for my car.
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