Trains, planes, boats and more…
27.02.2008 - 09.03.2008
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No matter how you plan to travel around Thailand, up-market, budget or just take it as it comes, there’s a way and a means for everyone. You can plan and book ahead or have the freedom to go where you want and when you want and there will be some form of transport to get you to your destination.
My plan was to spend most of my travels in the northern parts of Thailand. I had a list of locations I needed to visit, not as a tourist, but as part of a project I was working on, so time and budget was restrictive. The result was an insight into the movement of a population for a multitude of reasons, from transporting large bundles of wares to business reasons or just plain visiting and which at first appeared a frenzy of casual confusion until I realised the system is well oiled and reasonably reliable.
I’d like to take you with me as I start in the capital, Bangkok, the throbbing heart and the transport hub. A city that is in rapid growth and in a hurry to catch up as I noticed the express rail link to the new Suvarnabhumi International Airport is still under construction and well past its deadline. But never fear for there are taxis for around 300THB ($10 and 45 minutes) and buses for 120THB ($4 and 60 to 80 minutes depending on stops) to deliver you to your accommodation.
The Bangkok main station is Hua Lamphong for long-distance and local trains and a terminal for the new fast, clean, cheap and efficient underground MRT rail network that connects at several points with the convenient and atmospheric Skytrain.
Hua Lamphong main station and MRT underground station.
The underground MRT line connects with the Skytrain (Silom Line) at Si Lom. From here you can take the Skytrain north, or south to its terminal station, Saphan Taksin on the Chao Phraya River.
At Saphan Taksin you can take a ferry, a tour boat or a free shuttle boat to experience the hectic activities on the river as everyday working vessels, some appearing too monstrous for the river, ply their trade as high-rise apartments and international hotels peer down from both banks.
Traffic on the Chao Phraya River
As much as I would have loved to stay longer in Bangkok I needed to head north, to Udon Thani and the fastest and least expensive way was to fly with the Thai Airways discount airline NOK. If you book well ahead, the hour plus flight can cost as little as $30 (which includes all taxes and charges) and you can pick where you sit. Even if you book the day you fly the cost is still cheap at around $65. Of course this is a no frills airline but it does prepare you for the less luxurious transport to come.
From Udon Thani I took a bus further north to Nong Khai on the banks of the Mekong River. It is here that I quickly learnt how important the bus network is in Thailand. An endless stream of buses of a varying degrees of standards and disrepair cover all regions. First impression is one of confusion, but after purchasing my ticket from a helpful attendant I settled down for an hours wait before my transport arrives. During this hour I come to the pleasant realisation of the unpretentious organization the Thais have in place. Though there are moments of utter frenzy with the arrival of each bus as hordes of taxi and Tuk-tuk drivers converge on the dismounting and weary passengers for their custom.
Udon Thani bus station
From Nong Khai it’s a short distance across the Friendship Bridge to Vientiane in Laos, but this time I’m staying on the Thai side as having been to Vientiane on a previous visit. Here that I have time to slow down, go where I want to with ease, hop on and hop off at will and enjoy the river and the flat terrain – I dined on the river, left a wake in the muddy water and hired a bicycle.
More relaxed forms of transport
The process is repeated as I fly NOK Air from Udon Thani to Chiang Mai ($77) and take a bus to Chiang Sean and the Golden Triangle. The trip takes four hours to Chiang Rai and another hour to Chiang Saen, so I opt for some comfort and a first class bus (about $8) with air-conditioning, free water, a snack and an on-board stewardess.
Chiang Mai, being Thailand’s second largest city, has an equally larger bus terminal but the waiting is still prevalent with two and a half hours for my VIP transport, though there is a saving of an hour in travel time. This extra long vigil further educates me in the culture of Thai travel. Spuiking is loud for last minute ticket sales as buses prepare to depart. Food of all sorts is purchased and devoured or kept for the journey. I had time to shop for some band-aids to cushion my blistered feet. Backpackers, from all corners of the globe, looked the same as they did in the 70’s in their ethnic, soiled clubber as Monks in their pristine orange garb headed to their special, reserved seats in front of an altar, possibly to prey for the quick arrival of their bus. Patience is a requirement of travel, not only in Thailand but all over the globe.
Chiang Mai bus terminal
At Chiang Saen I take a tuk-tuk the nine kilometres to Sop Ruak and the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Ruak Rivers, the so-called heart of the ‘Golden Triangle’ and where the borders of Myanmar, Laos and Thailand meet. Sop Ruak is a small village so transport is less frequent with a blue mini bus (about every 20 minutes) the only way to get back to Chiang Saen or maybe the occasional truckie passing by with a load of bamboo may give you a lift. But the Tuk-tuk remains the most common form of local transport. With its colourful driver, the shrill tuk-tuk of the 2-stoke engine and the tight manoeuvrability on three wheels, the ride can be either pleasant or a terrifying thrill. And remember, before entering a taxi or Tuk-tuk, negotiate a reasonable fare in a cheerful manner.
Tuk-tuks and and other carriers
But, the ‘Golden Triangle’ is an attraction and like most attractions, they attract tourists in large numbers. Groups that can be confused and easily lost, so, how better to make sure they can find their own transport among the dozens of double-decked, diesel-guzzling beasts than to give each its own bright and colourful personality.
Well, that pretty much covers transport in Thailand. Planes, trains, buses, riverboats and 2-stroke three-wheelers make traversing this country exciting, interesting and totally suitable. But, apart from the obvious omission, your own two feet, the only other form of transport I have left till last is the soft-striding, gentle, nature-loving elephant.
The colour of a country is enhanced by the culture of its ability to move about and Thailand offers all the colour and efficiency at a very reasonable price. The added prerequisite of patience can only help to further observe and understand a land and its people. My journey had ended and I depart on my last form of transport, on a wing and a prayer that soon I’ll return.
Suvarnabhumi Airport departure gate