Riding overland: Why public transport is the best way to see Thailand

Riding overland: Why public transport is the best way to see Thailand

motorbikes along the road in Thailand

Flights are fast, but a road trip lets you see more | Photo by Tammy Burns

There’s no one single reason why you should visit Thailand. Some travellers come for the perfect beach holiday in paradise, armed with colourful sarongs, sunscreen, and a good book. Others aim for a more active vacation, with trekking or whitewater rafting, or maybe zip-lining and rock climbing. Some hop on a rented scooter and cruise along curvy mountain roads, in search of a scenic waterfall or hidden gem along the way. There are the travellers who are intrigued by the simple pleasures of eating spicy, intricately prepared cuisine, followed by a fresh coconut or tropical fruit for dessert, wandering through ornate temples and lively markets, and topping it all off with a nice long massage. And still others arrive to revel in a constant stream of incoming and outgoing backpackers, in a place where spirits run cheap and everyone is looking to make new friends, exchange travel tips, and share stories.

For most, it’s a combination of reasons that persuades them to go ahead and purchase that ticket to Thailand, whether they will cross the border by plane, train, bus or boat. And in fact, the transportation options in Thailand vary as much as the experiences one can have in the country. In addition to an infinite number of attractions — some hailed in guidebooks, and others as simple as finding a bamboo spirit house in the middle of a field or a conversation in broken English and Thai with the guy preparing your soup — it helps that there is a plethora of ways to get from place to place.

tuk tuk taxis lined up in Bangkok

The mighty tuk-tuk is the most popular way for tourists to get around town

You will quickly learn that locals (who don’t have their own motorbike or car) hop into tuk-tuks or songthaews (trucks with an open back and benches for seating), for cheap rides throughout the city. But what about when you want to head further out to a different town or region?

Though domestic airlines such as Nok Air and Air Asia offer affordable fares that can take you from sipping an ice coffee in a Chiang Mai café to sunning yourself on the shores of coastal Krabi in a few hours, I would argue in defense of Thailand’s extensive ground transport network — mostly minivans and buses offering both domestic and international connections at a ridiculously low cost. Though admittedly slower, and definitely stickier, it crisscrosses the country from north to south and is a far more interesting way to see the country than from inside an airplane.

When I lived up north in Chiang Mai, local travel meant visa runs to Myanmar’s Mae Sai border every 90 days, or trips to Pai, or winding overnight rite-of-passage journeys to Vientiane, Laos, where you can apply for a double-entry tourist visa, allowing you to stay in Thailand for six months.

Now that I’m based in the southern port city of Surat Thani, it means paying no more than a few hundred baht, most of the time less, to explore numerous destinations along the coast. On many weekends, I head over to the downtown bus station, hand over the equivalent of a few dollars, get on a van, and an hour later arrive in Khanom, a quiet town with a variety of beachside accommodation, not far south of Koh Phangan.

Vans and buses often run hourly on popular routes, and though you might have to wait for the next one to arrive if it’s full, it’s rare you won’t be able to get where you need to go the same day you turn up at the station for a ticket. Just remember to check the time of the latest departure, often available online, or inquire at your guesthouse.

As is often the case in Thailand, you never really know what you’re going to get when you purchase a ticket for a privately owned minivan, or even the public bus. If you’re lucky, the air conditioner will be blasting chilly air and your seat will recline properly. If you’re especially fortunate, they will not have oversold tickets, or picked up too many additional passengers on the side of the road, forcing you to squeeze three people where two should be. Bonus points if the person next to you isn’t omitting strong body odour, as you will likely be rubbing shoulders or thighs with people who have gotten just as sweaty as you while travelling in the humid air.

Sweaty bodies aside, I actually look forward to these journeys, because I love the exhilarating feeling of heading somewhere you have never been, or back to a place you love, watching the scenery roll by, observing the life and landscape of where you are.

a roadside cafe in Thailand

Roadside stalls are the best place to stop for snacks | Photo by Tammy Burns

Taking a bus also allows you to see some of the more interesting destinations not on a flight route — think small towns and national parks — giving you a glimpse of the Thailand that exists in between the tourist hubs. You can see its highways and small villages, stretches of farmland, roadside markets and countless little restaurants — with a pleasant backdrop of palms, mountains, and tropical flowers on repeat to remind you that you’re in paradise.

Gaze out the window and you might see migrant workers riding in the backs of trucks, wearing straw hats or bandanas to shield their faces from the sun. You could see Buddhist monks wearing bright orange robes hitching a ride in a songthaew, or skilled motorbike drivers towing an impressive stack of goods balanced masterfully on their seats, or others riding three or four to a bike, a baby in front between the handlebars.

Thais are an entrepreneurial bunch, and the side of the road seems to be a particularly popular place to set up shop. Vendors, often curiously lined up offering the exact same thing right next to each other, dot the roads selling everything from fruit, snacks and drinks to clothing, toys, and electronics, and even old whiskey bottles filled with gasoline for those who need a top-up.

From ground level, it’s also hard to miss the signs pointing to Thailand’s status as a developing country — maybe you’ll see precariously balanced electricians fiddling with wires on a telephone pole, or construction workers, in equally precarious positions, shirtless in slip-on shoes, drilling with sparks flying, making repairs to a road, even during the most sweltering hours of the day.

It’s also a great way to meet people or to practice your Thai. If you are travelling alone, you might be the only foreigner, which sometimes means you’ll get to zone out listening to the blur of Thai around you, or pick out words here and there that you understand. Often though, someone will strike up a conversation with you, whether as a means to practice their own English, or simply as a way to make you feel welcome and tell you about the area. Thais are incredibly friendly and their interactions genuine. I’ve been given tips on places to go, as well as propositioned for English lessons.

On more well-travelled routes, however, you’ll usually be riding with at least a few other tourists or expats and can get advice on places to stay, or make a friend to grab a drink with once you arrive. This can help pass time on your trip (some are quite long!) and also save you money if you get a group together to share taxi fare once you arrive in your destination.

No matter what life-changing experiences await you in Thailand, rest assured you’ll never get stranded or stuck — unless, like me, you want to.

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