It is really easy to travel in Thailand.
OK, so there aren’t high-speed rail links (yet) but it’s cheap and easy. There’s no real hurry in Thailand after all.
Buses are the cheapest way of getting around, ranging from about 20 baht to get around town to about 300-900 baht for intercity travel. Except for the very cheap 12 baht buses in Bangkok, all buses are air-conditioned. If you want a quick, reliable and comfortable way to travel long distance then there are private VIP services. The cost for Bangkok to Chiang Mai is 600-850 baht (depending on the speed and comfort level) and takes 10 hours. Most people prefer the VIP buses between Pattaya (or Rayong) and Bangkok – they follow the expressway, costs 300 baht and takes around 2½ – 3 hours.
Many people prefer travelling by mini-van – usually 12-15 people in a reasonably comfortable mini-bus. These are fast and cheap (around 150-300 baht), but not always safe. Some of the drivers can be quite reckless, but the mini-vans have much more flexible routes and schedules. [Read the section Deadly Traffic.]
The skytrain and metro network in Bangkok is superb, fast, frequent, bright, air-conditioned and cheap. 30-40 baht will get you to where you want to go. Your final destination might be some way from the station, so you will usually hop on a motorbike ‘taxi’ (another 20-30 baht). These short journeys are usually quite safe – but be aware that some insurance policies will not cover you if you have an accident while on a motorbike.
The intercity rail network is old and delapidated, but fun and friendly – so long as you’re not in a hurry. Don’t travel during the day if you can help it, it just takes too long – and the train might leave an hour late and arrive several hours later than scheduled. The sleeper trains are reasonably comfortable – the train might be dirty and grimey, but the bedding is scrupulously clean. There is one new train route that’s been added to the Bangkok-Chiang Mai line. The carriages are brand new and clean, comfortable and spacious inside, but because of that it is the most popular route and often booked up a week or two in advance. The food is fairly basic. I prefer the sleeper train because I can walk around and read in bed. My kids don’t like it at all – they prefer the VIP bus, which always leaves on time, takes 10 hours exactly and has comfortable recliner seats.
Flights are cheap and convenient. There are several low-cost airlines. You can purchase your e-ticket in advance online, or just arrive at the airport and usually find a seat. A one-way ticket costs around 1,200 baht between Bangok and Chiang Mai, 2,000 baht between Bangkok and Phuket, 6,000 baht to KL (Kuala Lumpur) or Singapore.
Taxis are suprisingly cheap (at least in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, not Phuket or Pattaya). It’s usually cheaper and more convenient to travel everywhere by taxi in Bangkok than to drive your own car. Most journeys will cost 100-200 baht. If you are crossing the city, you might pay 300 baht. As expats, we tend to forget how cheap this is because of how many even cheaper options there are to get around.
If you choose to live somewhere other than Bangkok then you should buy a motorbike. However, bear in mind that you are more likely to be involved in a serious accident – so think very carefully about it – and get proper training or take your time to learn how to operate a bike safely. Keep in mind that your insurance will probably not cover you if you are involved in a motorbike accident, and will definitely have an exclusion clause if you drive a bike without a valid license. Despite the added danger, it is so cheap and convenient that nearly everybody has one. If you live in Bangkok, don’t drive a motorbike and don’t cycle – unless to enjoy the quiet residential or country paths away from the vehicular traffic.
Cars are relatively expensive in Thailand. Second hand cars are surprisingly expensive. I can buy a decent 10-year-old car in England for £500, but a 15-year-old car in Thailand will usually cost about £2,000. The cost of gas (petrol) is about the same in the US ($5/gal), but about 40% cheaper than UK prices (85p/l).
The cost of maintenance, repairs, tax and insurance is very cheap, however. And, once you are resident in Thailand, you can easily get a Thai driving license. If you don’t already have a motorbike license then it’s a one-day process: watch a video (in English) explaining the rules of the road, take a multiple-choice exam and if you get at least 70% you go on to ride your bike around a simple obstacle course along with 100 other bikers. The most complicated task is to drive the length of a narrow plank. If you can do that then you get your license!