Gettin’ Around: Transportation in Thailand

Getting There, Thailand — By on April 25, 2011 at 9:03 pm
By Catherine Bodry
Special to The Lost Girls

Thailand has an excellent public bus and rail system, and ferry transport is also well-run and prolific. Cheap flights abound, making cross-country trips an affordable breeze. But for shorter-haul distances, you have a wide range of unique transportation at your disposal, all of which we recommend sampling.

Tuk-tuk

These three-wheeled, covered, and often colorful vehicles (see photo) are used for shorter distances. Three or four people can fit into one, and since it’s used as a vehicle-for-hire, the driver will deliver you to exactly where you want to go (opposed to, say, a bus or train). Tuk-tuks are great in high-traffic areas, as they can zip between larger vehicles stuck in jams.

Tuk-tuks are all over Bangkok, though one of the city’s wider scams is to offer a tour of the city for a ridiculously cheap price, and then instead shuttle travelers to gem and “antique” shops. Don’t be fooled! If something seems too cheap to be true, it probably is.

Songthaew

Pronounced song-tau, this is a form of public transportation that functions as a cross between a bus and a taxi.

A songthaew is a truck with a covered bed, and in the bed are two rows of facing benches (song means “two” in Thai, while thaew means “bench”). Drivers run semi-regular routes, picking up and dropping off passengers, or they sit at “stations” and wait for the truck to fill (these are usually for longer distances). In Chiang Mai, for example, drivers will stop for passengers and, if the passenger is headed to a similar destination as the driver and other passengers, he or she will take them along. Prices are usually fixed within city routes or longer point-to-point distances. It is possible to charter your own, but you’ll pay the cost of a full vehicle.

Samlor

A samlor is a three-wheeled bicycle, with a passenger basket in back of or beside the driver. Up to two passengers can fit, and the ride is generally a slow, short-distance ride. Often you’ll see Thais with many packages catching a samlor from the shop back to their home. Samlors are less common than tuk-tuks, but are a relaxing way to move through a neighborhood or town. Often the best way to take a samlor ride is on a tour.

Motorbike

Motorbike taxis are another good way to go short distances in heavy traffic. They’re able to weave between cars and through alleyways, and in many towns a ride is fixed rate within certain boundaries. Most motorbike-taxi drivers wear colored vests to identify them as such, and they should have a passenger helmet. If you’re wearing a skirt, ride sidesaddle—nothing makes me feel more like a lady than riding sideways on a motorbike in a skirt.

Long-tail boat

A long-tail boat is often featured in quintessential Thailand images and on postcards (see photo). The main characteristic of this boat is a car or truck engine connected to a long pole, at the end of which is a propeller. The boat driver uses the pole and propeller to steer, working with a range of about 180 degrees. The boat itself can resemble a large wooden rowboat (the very colorful boats you often see on postcards), a canoe, or a bamboo sampan. Some will have a canopy and plenty of seating, while on others passengers sit on the sides or floor.

Long-tail boats cover shorter distances (though some travel as far as Ko Samui to Ko Pha Ngan during the Full Moon Party) and it can be quite wet in rougher water. Make sure to put your important stuff, such as electronics, in waterproof bags!

Though Thailand is generally safe, accidents can happen. As always, but especially if you’re riding alternative forms of transport in Thailand, use your judgment and intuition when it comes to safety. Overcrowding, lack of helmets, or rough seas can be dangerous situations. If you don’t feel safe, wait for the next bike, boat, or bus.

Catherine Bodry is the writer at WhyGoThailand, where you can learn more about train travel in Thailand, the best Thai beaches, and what to do in Bangkok.

Photo credits (all from Flickr):

Longtailboat:  flatworldsedge

tuktukThailand:   Dave_B_