Sunday, March 31, 2013

Transportation in Thailand

In the week and a half since we got off the plane in Bangkok, we have used a combination of trains, buses, boats, tuk tuk, songtaew, motorbike, and our own two feet to get around. We've touched on the local transportation in Bangkok before, when we used the local buses, sky train, and ferry to get around. We braved the motorbike in Pai. Here’s what we think of the other modes of transportation we have encountered.

Long-distance Train: We had always planned to take the overnight train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, but we surprised ourselves by deciding to go to Chiang Mai at the very beginning of our trip instead of later. That decision found us at the railway station trying to figure out how the trains worked. We had done our research about which train to be on (we wanted Train 13) and which class (we wanted 2nd class with Air Conditioning), but what we didn't count on was the big fat 0 on the screen at the ticket window. Trains to Chiang Mai were completely sold out for the next three nights. We briefly considered running back to our hotel to grab our bags and catching the train that evening, but that would mean forfeiting a paid night at a hotel and rushing through the afternoon. At a loss, a kind information desk clerk finally let us in on a secret – often, seats open up on the day of. If we came back at 9am the next day, we might be able to find seats.
We did as he suggested, and sure enough, there were suddenly 35 open seats in second class. We booked our tickets, went back to our hotel to pack up and check out, and spent the day wandering around Bangkok. At 6 pm, we loaded onto the train and found our seats.

Second class means that you have a bed to sleep in, but it feels like a hostel with beds lining the length of the train car. During the day, we had two seats facing each other. At night, we had top and bottom bunks.
It was actually quite nice. We were able to order dinner, which they brought right to our seats. And we woke up just in time to watch the countryside go by a bit before we got into Chiang Mai.

Long-distance Bus: From Chiang Mai, we were ultimately headed to Singburi, the town where we are doing our volunteer week. The train stops at nearby Lopburi, but lots of Googling had us thinking that there might be a bus that took us directly to Singburi. We arrived at the Chiang Mai bus station on our bus from Pai and started asking around about how to get to Singburi. We found a VIP bus that cost 800 baht each, but the guy told us to come back and buy our ticket tomorrow. Before we left the bus station, we tried one more time, asking at a ticket window that said “Government Bus.” They ushered us toward a woman who spoke English, who explained that the second class bus stops in Singburi bus station, but the first class and VIP class buses only stop on the side of the highway. Second class it is, then!

We made it to the bus station the next day on a tuk tuk. We learned our lesson from the last time we had tried to find it. When we were leaving Chiang Mai for Pai, we had the great idea of walking to the bus station, with our packs, to save a couple dollars on tuk tuk fare. At one point, we walked into what we later discovered was the District Court and asked if we could go to Pai. They, rightfully, looked at us like we were crazy. Fortunately, the words “bus station” seem to be universally understood, so we made our way after lots of gestures and pointing.

So, this time we went straight to the bus station on a tuk tuk, and he dropped us off around back, exactly where our bus was. We got out, showed the driver our tickets, and added our bags to the pile underneath the bus. Then I had the following conversation with the driver:

Me: We go to Singburi.

Driver: You sit in seats D and E.

Me: Yes. Then we get off at Singburi.

Driver: Seats there. [Pointing to our seats at the front of the bus].

Me: Ok. And we go to Singburi.

And that went on repeat for a couple minutes. Until I changed tactic and announced, “We don’t go to Bangkok.” Clearly confused, the driver points to the top of our ticket, where, printed in bold, it says "Chiang Mai – BKK". Bless that patient man. I repeated “Singburi,” and he took the tickets from me, carrying them closer to the brightly lit bus station. Apparently in small Thai print at the bottom of the ticket, it said “Depart – Singburi.” Thank goodness!

At this point, it seemed the entire bus knew where we were getting off. The conductor came to check on us twice to confirm where we were going, and when we pulled into the station, other passengers alerted us to the fact that we were finally in Singburi. It was 4:30 in the morning.

Fortunately the bus ride was quite pleasant, with extra leg room since we were in the front row, and blankets provided by the bus. They even turned off the blaring Thai soap opera after a while so we could catch some sleep. So for 4:30 in the morning, we were reasonably alert but still had no idea what we were doing. This story will be continued…

Tuk tuks: We have finally ventured into hiring tuk tuks when we need them, although the interaction still makes us a little nervous. We have heard numerous accounts of scams by tuk tuk drivers who tell you your hotel is closed or insists on taking you to a shop first. In Chiang Mai, at least, we have had absolutely no experience with this. Every tuk tuk driver has been nice, and they have all been fair. At our best, we discuss the price we are willing to pay before-hand, ready to haggle if they suggest a higher price. Every time except once, the driver starts at the price we have already decided on, so we grin and hop in the car. The one time it was different, we offered less and he met us in the middle. At our worst, we are distracted and undecided, so the driver announces a relatively high price, and we dumbly nod our heads and climb in. Fortunately, the former has been more common than the latter.

The funniest experience we have had was a driver who clearly had picked us up on his way to dinner. We were trying to get to the Chiang Mai bus station (always an adventure!) when he picked us up, and stopped again a few blocks later. We initially thought he was asking directions, but after a few apologetic glances our way, he managed to ask us what time we had to catch our bus. It turns out, he had pulled over to order dinner, so we were sitting there waiting on them to bring it to him! “Five minutes!” he promised (everything in Thailand is “five minutes!”). But we just laughed and told him we would be ok. For once on our trip, we were early for something, so no problem. He got us to the bus in plenty of time

Songthaew: In English, songthaew translates to “two rows.” That’s a pretty apt description, considering it’s two rows of benches down the back of a pick-up truck. Our common experience with these is when we are being picked up by a hotel or planned tour, so we just hop in the back and ride along wherever they take us. One time, we tried to hire one to take us somewhere specific, and we somehow ended up chartering it to drive us across town. Not quite how they are supposed to work…I think they act more like buses, stopping to pick up other passengers along the way while giving you a cheap ride ultimately to your destination. We have yet to really figure this one out yet.

Our own two feet: If in doubt, we walk, and we have been doing quite a lot of that in Thailand! Our feet were prone to blisters when we walked around Australia, back when I alternated between sandals and sneakers. It is so hot here, though, that we are firmly in sandals, and my feet are ugly enough to prove it. No more blisters for me! What I wouldn’t give for a warm bath to soak them in, but we have yet to find a bathtub in Thailand (or anywhere on our trip). I’m seriously considering going to that fish spa to clean them up before we head home, though. We will see!


  1. You might need to go to the fish spa just so we can see pictures of your feet being nibbled.

  2. yeah fish spa! this is an exciting blog, can't wait for the next entry! - joelle