A quick guide to long distance travel in Thailand. These are the options, benefits and drawbacks for long distance travel in Thailand. While I have used Bangkok as a basis for these journeys (as most travels centre round the Thai capital) the same will be relevant to pretty much anywhere else in Thailand. Travel options have been put into order of best, to worst in my personal opinion.
Between myself and Fanfan this would be the only contentious choice. Fanfan would rather arrive fast, while I’m happy to take my time and enjoy slow travel. For me train travel is therefore my favourite for long distance travel in Thailand; firstly because it is relatively cheap and second because I like to escape for a bit, to relax and just watch rural life pass by. I’m a little bit of a trainiac. To date I’ve done many train journeys; including up into Laos (Bangkok to Vientiane) and down into Malaysia (Bangkok to Penang). Every journey is pretty much the same. For overnight, long distance travel in Thailand there will be two options; the 2nd class sleepers (top or bottom) and the 1st class cabin. The first class cabin is for two people so for solo travellers the 2nd class option would be better. As a couple we’ve had romantic(ish) nights with a bottle of wine and scenic cabin views in first class. The 2nd class option isn’t so bad either with sleeper beds on opposites sides of the train car. During the day these beds will be hidden to create individual seating areas, then if you’re feeling sleepy just ask the train steward to set up the beds. Both top and bottom sleeper berths have curtains for privacy. The lower berth is the preferred option with enough space to fit two people and with a window to watch the night go by. It does however get warm as it is cut off from the air-con. Above, the upper berth may also get too cold being too close to the air-con and there is no window so no romantic night views. The top berth is also smaller, and slightly cramped. The food option on-board include hawkers who sneak on at halts along the way, or call in (or order for delivery) to the train’s Bogie restaurant (no more alcohol sold). Each train car will have open washrooms, and toilets which are very necessary for long distance travel in Thailand. Note some cars may have squat toilets but it is easy to mooch down to the next car for a western style toilet. An obvious limitation on train travel is that trains only go where the lines go, so not all of Thailand is covered. Also trains are rarely on schedule and I’ve found up to 4 hours in delays. The Bangkok train station at Hua Lamphong serves as the hub for for long distance travel in Thailand.
Flying is without a doubt Fanfan’s preferred option for long distance travel in Thailand. So much so that she refuses to travel any other way. If I travel by train she’d jump on a later flight to meet me there, and to be honest I don’t blame her. Travel with low-cost carriers is often just as cheap, if not cheaper, than both train and even bus travel in Thailand. On more than one occasion we’ve flown to Phuket for cheaper than a cramped 12 hour bus journey (under 1000 Baht). I’m not saying flying is always the cheapest option but if booked in advance you will almost always find bargains. For these bargains the two popular low-cost carriers in Thailand are AirAsia and the adorable Nok Air. So with added comforts in flying, and the one hour journey time to reach almost anywhere in Thailand, it is in no doubt the easy option. The only reason that flying is not number one, is I’d prefer a relaxed train journey over pushing through queues and hassles at the airport. Yes, I’m probably weird. Fortunately boarding flights is easier these days and recently we’ve even boarded a flight arriving just 20 minutes before departure at the airport (note, we printed our own boarding passes, and don’t try similar as this was a slight miracle). Statistically as well flying is the safest route for long distance travel in Thailand. For long distance travel in Thailand it is the Bangkok Don Mueang airport which serves the low cost carriers listed above.
Buses would be the grimmer of options for long distance travel in Thailand, and in the past I’ve spent up to 15 hours trapped on a bus, leaving early morning from the bottom borders of Thailand, travelling up to Bangkok. It wasn’t a terrible experience, but for me, the train option would have been a whole lot better. Buses are cramped, claustrophobic and offer little freedom to move around whereas, this would be the complete opposite with train travel, where you can explore the cars, eat at the bogie restaurant, bring on a beer or two to relax. While buses will likely be the faster option for long distance travel in Thailand, this won’t be by much. Chances are the bus will also be more expensive. Again with buses the food options are limited, a snack and bottle of water often provided at the start, then you’re waiting for irregular pit stops along the way. Pit stop food tends to be snacks from roadside garages or maybe a Khao Rad Kaeng curry buffet. Note, it is also imperative to use the restrooms during pit stops, if not for yourself, for the sake of others. Buses are already bad enough for long distance travel in Thailand, so don’t add the unnecessary stench of urine. So stops will come few and far between, and at times I’ve gone 8 hours without a break. If resorting to buses for long distance travel in Thailand, it is best to use the VIP Buses (air-con). This is not because you’ll feel like a VIP (far from it) but other buses may be local buses, with multiple stops en route (although passing through small towns can be interesting). VIP buses are almost always direct express buses. When travelling from Bangkok there are a number of bus terminals serving different parts of the country. The Mo Chit Bus Station is the busiest and it serves the Northern Parts of Thailand including Isaan in the North East. Next would be the Ekkamai bus station which serves the east for popular island getaways such as Koh Chang and Koh Samed. For travel to the South the Southern Bus Terminal is Sai Tai Mai, or another option would be to travel from Khaosan Road where regular buses serve the backpacker frat and travel to all over the country (note, backpackers are not known for their hygiene). If you can, get the top front seats, as you’ll get full window views and lots of leg room. Also go with the more expensive buses as they’ll offer better leg room, maybe massage chairs and aim for the air hostess experience.
Minivans are the preferred option with savvy locals for long distance travel in Thailand, but again I’m not a huge fan. The main benefits I find in minivans is their speed as they are happy to nip through traffic and manage to take a chunk out of travel times, compared to the big buses. If you’re in a hurry, say on a short weekend away etc. they do make sense, but for slower travellers they don’t add much more than speed. The main drawbacks with minivans is they are no doubt cramped and can be terrifying when travelling at crazy speeds with no seat belt. While some my have seat belts, I’ve found many discourage them (photo below right). Minibuses are also limited in that they don’t do overnight journeys and will likely only cover areas within a 6 hour radius. They are normally used by young locals going to their hometowns. Leaving Bangkok the Victory Monument Minivan Terminal (Anusaowari) is the central hub for long distance travel in Thailand. From here minivans leave regularly at irregular intervals. Once the van is filled it leaves (with most) and there are around 15-20 seats onboard so this doesn’t take long. For tourists it isn’t always simple to find the correct minivans and it is often just best to turn up with your destination and ask around. Most minivans are found lining the streets and car parks starting at the Century Plaza next to Victory Monument Skytrain Station (Exit 2). Prices will likely be more expensive than in travel by big bus.
Not an obvious option for long distance travel in Thailand, but it is an option. Bangkok taxis will drive pretty much anywhere in Thailand given the right price. I once started as a 5 mile taxi ride to Bangkok train station, which soon became a 500 mile, 6 hour Bangkok taxi ride to Chumphon in Southern Thailand (travelling to Koh Tao). The trip to Chumphon cost 3000 Baht (around $100) with a 1000 Baht tip knowing the poor fella had a 500 mile return journey to back home. On this occasion there were four of us in the taxi so split between us it would have been similar price to the bus or train journey, but it was in no way as comfortable. For short distances, taxis are fine. When three people are squashed in the back seats, for 6 hours… not so much. We were fortunate to have one of the larger taxis (below right) on this occasion so we were a little less cramped than could have been. If planning to use taxi for long distance travel in Thailand, most taxis will have price cards hanging at the backseats of the taxi. This will show fixed prices for travel outside of Bangkok, normally to neighbouring cities and negotiate for further. The taxi option would likely be better than the bus option but only given that 3 or 4 people are sharing the fare. For my trusted taxi guy (Mister Chai) and his comfortable SUV his contact number is 0814019128.