Most travellers are probably familiar with the warning appearing over and over again in guidebooks and travel websites that it is not advisable and not safe to take tourist buses in Thailand. Certainly it is always a very easy option to walk into the first travel agency on Khao San road and buy a ticket for the 6 p.m. coach to Chiang Mai – only to find out that the 9 to 10-hour journey takes 14 instead in a deep-frozen rickety bus, you are dumped well outside town and left at the mercy of vultures disguised as taxi drivers, and on arriving in your guesthouse, you find your backpack ransacked and some of your better clothes and valuables missing. Such stories still abound in travel blogs.
So, what is the alternative?
White and blue buses of government-approved transportation companies ply the routes of the Kingdom at all hours of day and night, transporting tens of thousands of people every day. Services are usually very reliable, prices are fixed, robberies are unheard of. Yes, there are news of accidents every month or so, buses overturning on mountain highways at night, people getting killed, the driver, if he survives, invariably running away. There are news of poor maintenance and long hours for drivers and drivers falling asleep. No, it is not perfect. But I think it is still the best you can get around here.
So, what is the catch if I think you are much better off taking government buses? – You need to know exactly what you are doing. It is easy once you get the hang of it.
First of all, you need to find the right kind of bus to your destination.
For longer trips over 8 hours or so, such as Bangkok to Chiang Mai, Krabi, Phuket, Nong Khai, Ubon, or the deep south, especially if you are travelling overnight, I recommend that you take VIP class or first class. VIPs are 24 or 32 seaters, and you can get a very comfortable night’s sleep in the reclining, wide seats. First class has 40 seats and it is still adequate enough for a long trip or an overnight journey, seats are reclining and there are leg rests as well. It is a good alternative to flying or if sleeper trains are full. As an example, the ticket prices on the Bangkok-Chiang Mai route (700 kms, 9 to 10 hours) are 805 and 605 baht respectively for VIP24 and VIP32, and 518 baht for first class. Most buses on long-distance routes will be first class, with one VIP departure in the morning and one in the evening only.
First class sleepers ready to leave for Southern Thailand
Both in VIP and first class, the ticket price usually includes a meal halfway through, often in the small hours of the morning. The food is invariably inedible – watery rice soup (jok), foul smelling eggs, pickles, dried sweet meat. But of course you don’t need to eat it if you are not into it, or you can buy food for yourself. There are pillows and blankets in the bus, and an attendant who wakes you up at your stop, no need to worry you oversleep. For a couple of hours, you will be listening to either luk thung (folk-pop) karaoke CDs or violent action movies full of screams. Passengers are 95% Thai, usually very quiet, even if they have small children with them, they sleep through the night.
For shorter trips lasting less than 6 hours, such as Chiang Mai to Sukhothai, Bangkok to Trat, or Phuket to Khao Sok, a second class bus is the most widely available option. Leg room is limited but it is nevertheless comfortable, the buses are air-conditioned as well. Unless there are no first class buses, you are mazochistic, or super small size, don’t try to survive a 10-hour ride in second class, you will regret it – it is very much like travelling in economy class in a cramped airplane, and you can only save 20% compared to first class. These buses usually stop halfway as well at roadside canteens or stalls where you can buy your own meal. The ticket price includes a coke or a water, sometimes a snack and a refreshing towel are handed out.
A second class bus in Udon Thani – far away from the tourist routes, all signs are in Thai only.
Third class buses are not air conditioned, open windows provide ventillation. Usually they run on shorter routes such as Krabi to Trang, Phuket to Khao Lak, or Chiang Mai to Pai. They are not necessarily white and blue in colour, red and grey or orange are two frequent colourings. These buses are perfect alternative to overpriced cramped minivans usually offered to tourists on short routes. You can get unexpected companions in the shape of a crate of chicken, there are food vendors pushing on the bus at every stop, and, generally speaking, lots of local culture. It is a fun way to spend an hour or two getting from one place to another. These buses usually take local roads and will pick up or drop off passengers anywhere, and of course pack the bus more than full if there are lots of passengers heading their way.
A third class bus at Phang Nga bus station.
Sounds good? Unfortunately, there is a catch. The biggest problem is that bus terminals are usually on the outskirts of towns and cities, and you need to rely on local public transport (songthaews or taxis) just to get there and find out about the schedule and get a ticket in advance.
I will tell you about the tricks of booking seats on buses the next time.