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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 buses with motorcycles being commonly used for short distances in the larger cities.
While most foreigners should be able to 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. 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.
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.
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.
Rail rapid transit
Bangkok is home to the country's only rapid transit system of its kind. This system includes the BTS Skytrain, the Metropolitan Rapid Transit (MRT), and the Suvarnabhumi Rail Airport Link (ARL). Collectively, the system only consists of five lines total, though there are additional lines planned.
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 routes. 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 have malfunctioning meters or taxi drivers who refuse to use them, so fares will have to be negotiated before getting into the vehicle.
Taxi cabs, which are usually bright pink, blue or yellow and green, are easy to find in major cities like Bangkok. It's advised that expats book a taxi via phone or online before their trip. Raid-hailing services such as Grab are also available, which can be useful for avoiding problems that may crop up due to the language barrier.
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.
The most popular taxis for tourists in Thailand are samlaws, better known as tuk-tuks. These are three-wheeled vehicles that are either motorised or non-motorised and can carry up to two or three passengers.
Also known as ‘red buses' or 'red trucks’, songthaews are another popular choice of transport in Thailand. These passenger vehicles are adapted from pick-up trucks and are used as a share taxi or bus. Songthaews are used both within towns and cities, as well as for longer routes between towns and villages.
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. That said, the roads on Koh Samui and Koh 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.
Cycling in Thailand
Cycling enthusiasts will find that this is not the best way to get around in Thailand. There are few dedicated cycle lanes, though Bangkok has more than most Thai cities. 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.
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.
►For more on staying safe in the country, see Safety in Thailand
"I suggest a motorbike, but no car required. Cars are prohibitive where traffic and narrow streets are concerned. Public transportation is great. A red truck (simply a pickup truck with benches in the back) can take you anywhere in town and they run frequently. Tuk-tuks are expensive and sometimes shady. Taxis are great to get to the airport, but you’ll often argue over them turning on the meter (or having a meter that is accurate)." Read more of Canadian Mike's expat experience in Thailand.
"Most people own motorcycles or use motorcycle taxis. While it’s convenient and quite exhilarating, it can be frightening when driving in a city like Bangkok." James shares his expat experience in Thailand.
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