Category Archives: All Transport

How to travel by bus in Thailand 1.

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.

More Tips for Driving in Thailand

Click here if you haven’t read part one yet.

Thailand has a large network of roads that take you to just about anywhere. The vast majority are paved roads in good reasonable condition. We drive on the left here which is useful for people who come from say the UK or Australia. Road distances are in kilometers which is obviously great for metric countries. The main highways connecting the provinces have two to four lanes on each side giving you fast access. On these highways, you will find that all of the roads signs are bilingual. This not only means that places names are written in Roman characters, but warning signs are often translated into English too. Anyway, most warning signs have pictures that are familiar or are easier enough to work out. The only problem I sometimes have with the direction signs is that the Roman letters are often a lot smaller than the Thai characters. Which might mean that sometimes you will have to check out the Thai first. They also often put them at confusing places which makes it ambiguous where you have to turn off. Sometimes they put it before a minor road that you shouldn’t go down or just after the road that you should! But, you get used to that.

Off the main highway you will only find one or two lanes on each side. You will still find bilingual directions signs though this is not always guaranteed. If the place you are intending on visiting is not very popular with international tourists, then you might need to consider making a note of the Thai characters for the place name. However, I have driven by many large signs in English and Thai for tourist attractions that turn out to be very small and insignificant. And so, for the majority of your trip, you shouldn’t face much problem with the language at all.

Once you are on the road, you will need to make sure that you always have enough petrol to get you around! Filling up is very easy though I would recommend that you always you use the main brand name petrol stations. Although I have had no problems, I have heard stories from other people of petrol being watered down or the attendant not resetting the counter of the pump to zero before filling up. This means that you pay for the previous person and for yourself. But, in all the years that I have been driving in Thailand, I have never experienced such a problem. If you are renting a car, you will need to ask them what petrol it takes. It can get a bit confusing as there are so many different kinds. For myself, I am now using “gasohol 95”. You don’t fill it up yourself as there are attendants that do it for you. When they come around to your window, just tell them what petrol you want and how much. You can either say “dtem tang” which means “fill it up” or how much you want to pay, like “neung pun” for 1000 baht. They will also often ask if you want a receipt. In Thai they will say something like “rub bai set”. I usually say yes.

You will find that not all petrol stations are the same. Some I go to also clean your windscreen without asking and also take out any trash you might have. There is also no problem to ask them to check the tyre pressure for you and this service won’t cost you any extra. Another reason to go to the big brand name petrol stations are the shops and other facilities. When you are on the road, it is often a good place to stop for a break. Maybe have a can of ice coffee or a meal if you are hungry. Their toilet facilities are also very good and clean. Though you will mainly find Asian style squat toilets. You will see petrol stations every where, but as a general rule, I never use the smaller ones. So, keep your tank topped up whenever you get the opportunity or just before you about to leave a main highway. It is a good idea to work out as soon as you can your petrol consumption. It is easy to work out a rough estimate. Fill up your tank and reset the distance counter. Then, the next time you fill up, make a note of how many litres was needed to fill the tank and how many kilometres you travelled. Then just divide distance by litres to find out how far you can go on one litre. Obviously this will vary with your speed and terrain.

Driving in cities like Bangkok can be nerve racking for the most experienced of drivers. It takes time getting used to it. One thing you should know is that it is every man for himself on the road. That includes pedestrians. Don’t stop at pedestrian crossings because the car behind you won’t expect you to do that. He will probably just overtake you and then as you are blocking his view of the pedestrian, he will probably run them down. The same goes for lights that are changing to red. Think twice before you prepare to stop for a red light. The car behind you is probably speeding up and won’t realize that you are going to stop. I have had several cars nearly hit me from behind even when I slowed down gradually. Their eyes were on the lights and not me. Then again, you need to be aware that the people going the other way will be watching your lights turning red and not for their lights going to green. You will find that they often start coming before they get a green light. Motorcycles are the worst. They often don’t take any notice of red lights and you will also find that they drive down the road on the wrong way facing oncoming traffic.

Don’t get me wrong, Thailand is not a lawless country. There are policemen. However, in places like Bangkok you will only see them in their air-conditioned police boxes at major intersections. These guys ride motorcycles and so you won’t see any police chases in the city. For most of the time, they set up road blocks just for motorcycles. They check to see if they have licenses, registration and are wearing helmets. But, they also stop motorists for traffic violations. Though not as often as I would like. Many drivers are very dangerous. Like changing lanes without signaling or going into the left lane to do an illegal u-turn. I have actually been stopped twice by police in Bangkok. Once for going through a red traffic light (I was confused where the line was to stop) and once for going the wrong way down a one way street (Bangkok has some roads where only buses are allowed to go). Both times they asked for a bribe but I insisted on getting a ticket.

On the inter city roads, you will sometimes see highway police cars. They don’t drive around that much as they don’t always have enough money for petrol. I usually see them parked by the side of the roads pulling over trucks for some violation. You will also sometimes find police checkpoints on the main highways. In particular in the north and border areas. Some of these are unmanned. But others you will have to pass through slowly. I usually find it a good idea not to make eye contact. That lessens the chance of them pulling you over. That is a good rule for when travelling as sometimes officials cannot be bothered to try and attract the attention of a foreigner. If you do get pulled over, they will probably ask to see your driver’s license first. An international license is fine if you are a tourist. They may also want to see your passport. It might be a good idea to have some one hundred baht notes handy. I don’t normally condone bribing, but there was one time when I was pulled over by what I can only call highway robbers. They said that I was speeding even though they had no speed gun.. I wasn’t the only person as they were stopping all the cars behind me too. They could tell from my number plates that I was out of state. So, they said that they could make it easy for me and allow me to pay the fine on the spot. The alternative was to go to the police station the following day. As I was on holiday and in the middle of no-where, I felt I had no choice. So I gave them 200 baht.

Having said all of that, driving in Thailand is safe and I have never experienced any major problems. It is very rewarding so do consider for the next time you are on holiday in Thailand. But make sure you read the rental contract properly before you sign it. Find out about liability and how much the insurance really covers during an accident. On most days I pass cars that have been involved in an accident so don’t make the mistake in thinking that it won’t happen to you. If you feel that you are not up to driving yourself, then you can always hire a car that also comes with a driver!

Tips on Driving in Thailand

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 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 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.

Click here for part two >>>>

Kanchanapisek Outer Ring Road

Chang Erawan

Chang Erawan alongside the Outer Ring Road in Samut Prakan

It has been about three years in the making, but the southern stretch of the Kanchanapisek Outer Ring Road was finally opened on Thursday 15th November 2007. We have been waiting for this for years as the rest of the ring road has long been completed. For the people who live in the southern border areas of Bangkok, this new highway is a godsend. It means we can now quickly go to all points of the compass without going through Bangkok first. It is also good news for people arriving at the new Bangkok airport at Suvarnabhumi. Now there is really no need to go into Bangkok first to stay the night before moving onto other locations around Thailand. The airport is alongside the motorway which goes down to Pattaya. Now, the quick access to the Outer Ring Road will whisk people off  North to Ayutthaya and beyond and South to Hua Hin. To celebrate the opening, I decided to set off this morning on a non-stop drive around the outskirts of Bangkok on the Kanchanaphisek Outer Ring Road. I love road trips!

I started my trip at Chang Erawan, which is the giant three-headed elephant in Samut Prakan. This is only ten minutes away from my house. I could also have chosen to start my trip at the entry ramp on Srinakarin Road near Tesco Lotus. Before I started, I filled up with petrol at Jet. The price of petrol has been going up so much recently. A full tank cost me 1,800 baht. It wasn’t that long ago that I would get change from a 1,000 baht note. Not any longer. I am still using Benzin 95 which is the most expensive at 32.49 baht per litre. It was less than 15 baht when I first came to Thailand. Road trips these days are costing me quite a bit. If you are wondering how much today’s outing cost me, then scroll down to the bottom of this article. I suppose I should be lucky I am not doing travel blogs in the UK. The cost of petrol there is double what we have to pay. America is not as expensive and I think we are fast catching them up.

Now that the Outer Ring Road is finished, the bad traffic jams around Chang Erawan on Sukhumwit Road have cleared up. It is actually quite a complicated intersection now as there are numerous exit and entry ramps. Dominating the landscape is of course the three-headed elephant. However, it does somewhat look smaller now than before. The plans for the outer ring went back many years. There was a lot of local opposition including from the owners of the Chang Erawan. The story goes that to stop this ring road, he built the giant elephant on its projected path. But, it didn’t really stop it and, probably out of spite, they went around the elephant and straight through his front living room! You cannot stop progress and ring roads like these are really needed in order to help keep traffic off the local roads.

As the highway has only just opened, I was really hoping to stop my car somewhere on the entry ramp and hop out to take a quick photo. However, there was surprisingly a lot of cars and trucks on the road. Although it was six lanes, there were vehicles in all lanes and I couldn’t travel much faster than 100 kph. Despite that, in less than five minutes I had reached the new Kanchanapisek Bridge and had crossed the mighty Chao Phraya River. At this point the river is 500 metres wide so that will probably make it the longest single span bridge in Bangkok. You know this is such good news for us. Up to now, it would take us an hour to go by car to the other side of the river as we had to head further into Bangkok. But now we can cross the river so much quicker by car. However, it won’t always be free. I didn’t have to pay when I entered the outer ring road today, but I could see markings on the road where they are planning on building toll booths. It will probably be about 30 baht for this section (less than $1).

Once on the other side of the river, we joined the stretch that had already been completed for many years. Up to now it just stopped in the middle of no-where by the river. You then had to catch a car ferry to the other side or go into Bangkok for the Rama IX Bridge. Now of course we also have the Mega Bridge which will take us across to Samut Prakan or to Rama III road in Bangkok. The last time I was on this road it was virtually empty. It is like driving through the jungle as we were at tree tops. But today the road was very busy, but I was still able to keep an average of 120 kph.  Ten minutes after leaving the elephant, I reached Rama II Road which is Highway 35 which takes you down south to Samut Sakhon, Phetchaburi and Hua Hin. Last year I went down that road to the floating market at Amphawa. Before it had taken me 80 minutes to get to this intersection. For sure I am going to be planning some day trips down south soon. Look out for some new travel blogs in the coming months.

From this point the traffic slowed down a lot. In fact we had to stop a few times. This is in despite the fact that it was an eight lane highway and two lanes on the frontage either side. But, this was now a local road as well so there was a lot of people coming and going. The intersection for Nakhon Pathom was only 8 kms further on but it took me 24 minutes to travel that distance.  Maybe I should have done this on a Sunday morning. But, I wasn’t trying to break land speed records. Though I am probably the first person to drive the complete loop. Anyway, 35 minutes after leaving the elephant I was now at the intersection for Nakhon Pathom which also goes to Kanchanaburi. Maybe I will do a day trip down this road soon. Lots of possibilities here. After a short while, the traffic started to speed up. There had been some roadworks that had slowed us down.

I like doing road trips, so going around in a big circle is no problem. About 52 kilometres after leaving the elephant, I had now reached the intersection for Highway 345. This is the exit for destinations towards Suphan Buri. I guess I will have no excuse now to visit our Steve again. I have done some blogs in that area but there is still a lot more to do. As I drove along, my mind kept buzzing with ideas of new road trips. Where should I go first? One hour after leaving I reached intersection for Highway 346. I hadn’t gone as far as I had wanted to as the odometer only registered 65 kms. So, that meant an average speed of 65 kph. A lot slower than I was hoping to do. Actually, I thought I could do 120 kph all the way which is the maximum speed limit. But, I was speeding up now. This whole section in the northwest is out in the country side. It is only four lanes but not much traffic. I came up this road before to see the open billed storks in the temple. You might remember the blog on that. 

After one hour and eight minutes I reached the bridge which crossed back across the Chao Phraya River. I had done 77 kilometres. This wasn’t that bad going compared to the past. Just after the bridge there was a turning for the Bang Sai Arts and Craft Museum. I love that place and often take visitors there. I am sure I did a blog on it if you search. I might go again soon as it is now so near. A short while late I passed the intersection for the expressway from Bangkok. This is the route I normally use to go up north. Around here is also the intersection for Ayutthaya and Bang Pa In. A couple of excellent destinations for day trips from Bangkok. This is also the northernmost section of the outer ring road. I actually almost nearly got a bit lost here but managed to get on the right road to take me back down on the eastern stretch of the Outer Ring Road. I had been driving now for one hour and twenty minutes and had only done 92 kms. I had a lot of time to try and catch up on.

In comparison, the first part of this stretch was excellent. It was only a four lane highway but it was purpose built. No local traffic as there were tall fences on either side. Let’s just say I managed to do a minimum of 120 kph for a while. A sign said that the new airport was only 60 kms away. So, probably wouldn’t take long to get to Ayutthaya from the airport if you wanted to. There isn’t really much down this side. It is literally in the middle of nowhere so not many intersections. However, Highway 305 was signposted for Nakhon Nayok. I haven’t been that way before. I will make a note and maybe see if I can do a day trip that direction. I am sure there must be something.

After a good start on the eastern stretch, we then had to slow down for some road works. Also the first of two toll booths which cost 30 baht each. We had a few more intersections that included Rama Inthra and the motorway for Chonburi and Pattaya. Time was passing quickly now. I was trying my best to get home in two hours. However, one hour and 55 minutes after leaving I was passing the intersection for the new airport. Two hours after leaving I reached the Bang Na Trad Highway. I had now done 154 kms which meant an average of  77 kph. I had made up some time but not a lot. I was now on the new stretch of the Outer Ring Road. This was above the ground and although there was a lot of traffic I made good time. Normally from the airport it would take me 45 minutes to get home. I had just gone from the airport to Bang Na Trad Highway in ten minutes. Then in less than ten more minutes I was passing the exit ramp for Srinakarin Road. My house is 8 minutes from that point. So, less than 30 minutes for me to go to the airport and almost a guarantee of no traffic jams as there would be no local traffic! Five minutes later I had gone from Srinakarin Road to Sukhumwit Road (usually takes 30 minutes) and I was back at the start. As I approached I could see the giant three-headed elephant on the skyline.

I made it back in two hours and eight minutes after leaving. The odometer read 168 kilometres. I went back to the Jet petrol station to fill up the tank again. It was the same bloke I had seen two hours previously and he gave me a funny look when I asked for him to fill up the tank again. Of course, this wouldn’t be an accurate reading of how much petrol I had used as I couldn’t be sure he had really filled the tank up before. They usually try to get round numbers with the price. Anyway, he put in 13.2 litres which cost me 430 baht. So, about 2.5 baht per kilometre. I guess a bit of an expensive two hours if you also add the 60 baht for toll booths. It cost me about $14 in total for this experiment. Once the new toll booths open, then the complete circuit would probably cost 120 baht in tolls. But, it was all good research for me and I am feeling very fortunate I now have plenty of opportunities of new road trips to go on in the coming months. I just ned to decide where I will go first! Maybe I will head north to Saraburi and Lopburi next weekend.