A Travellerspoint blog

March 2008

Transport in Thailand

Trains, planes, boats and more…

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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.
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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.

Bangkok Skytrain
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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
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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.

NOK air
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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
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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
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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
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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
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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.

Tour buses
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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
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Posted by DenOS.08 15:10 Archived in Thailand Tagged transportation Comments (0)

New bells for Tyn Church

An added attraction in the Old Town Square, Prague

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There’s so much to see when planning your travel itinerary, but when you happen across something totally unplanned, a once-in-a-lifetime event, a special moment in history and you’re an on-the-spot witness, this is the birth of an everlasting memory.

Such was the occasion on my recent visit to the capital of the Czech Republic, Prague, when on a sunny winter's day I walked through the Old Town Square to be confronted by something so out of place in this historic open space, a space featuring more than its fair share of tourist attractions: the Old Town Hall with its confounding Astronomical Clock, the Jan Hus Monument, the Rococo Kinksy Palace, the decorated Storch House, the Baroque Church of St Nicholas and the most distinctive landmark, the Church of Our Lady before Tyn with its Gothic steeples that I’m sure inspired the Disneyland designers. Here, overpowering the aged palette of the past, I’m confronted by a massive, bright yellow crane, its feet firmly rooted trustingly upon the small cobblestones with its extended tentacle stretching upwards towards the Tyn steeples.

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Looking something like a promotion display for a construction company and attracting a large curious crowd, the crane began to lift something from a thin alleyway beside the Church. As soon as the object became high enough for the crowd to see, a sigh of wonderment rippled across the square as they recognized the familiar shape of a large, heavy bell. Silence then fell over the onlookers as they became totally consumed by this historic event.

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Originally the Church towers housed six bells until WWII when the Germans seized control of Prague and proceeded to melt the bells for their metal to be converted into military equipment until only one bell was left. The bell, called Marie, manufactured in 1553 and weighing 6,500 kilograms, is the second oldest bell in Prague. In 1989, after the Velvet Revolution, one new bell was installed and on this day, Tuesday 19 February 2008, three more bells are being lifted to their new home, high up in the north tower. From this point placing and tuning the new bells will take until Easter Sunday, when they will chime for the first time during the Easter Mass. A sixth bell will have to wait until sufficient funds are donated as each bell can cost up to 1 million Czech crowns and take almost two years to make as long as there’s no mishaps as the largest bell being installed today was melted down after the first attempt was slightly off-key.

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Lifting each bell was a nail-bitingly slow, precise operation as the crane operator constantly received instructions from the engineers peering out of the steeple window to ensure that no overhanging ancient ornaments were damaged. This meant that the bell could not be lowered directly into the tower but needed to be hooked and pulled from within, a process unseen from the street, but most likely with the aid of some sort of hydraulic mechanism as the weight would have been to much for the number of men the small space could accommodate.

One bell after the other are lifted until the largest weighing 2,500 kilograms is manoeuvred into the north side window as Jan Hus looks on approvingly in the knowledge that once again multiple bells will toll through the Town Square and momentarily scare off the ever-present soiling pigeons.

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To have read about so much oppression and turmoil over the years, which has meant so much rebuilding, and then to witness this single element of the process brings such resurrection into direct, overwhelming perspective.

Posted by DenOS.08 00:54 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged educational Comments (0)

Elephant walk in Chiang Rai

Saddle sore on the gentlest of mammals

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There is no other image as identifiable of Thai culture than the elephant. This ancient beast has had a long and valuable impact on this country as a working companion and as a powerful attack force over the centuries. But these gentle creatures are in danger of neglect from unemployment and destruction by the still active illegal ivory poaching. Their once valuable contribution to farming and other heavy work related activities has diminished since the banning of logging in 1989, so it was without hesitation that I opted to go on an ‘elephant safari’ to keep one elephant and its mahout employed and fed for at least another day.

The Chiang Rai safari may not be as large as the Thai Elephant Conservation Centre in Lampang Province near Chiang Mai, but I’m not sure I wanted to go as far as seeing these regal creatures performing tricks, I just wanted to get close to them, to sense their temperament, to feel the texture of their skin, to understand more of their manner. So with my guide, Joy, we set off on an hour-long boat trip to reach the Karen village and our mount.

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It’s a sudden sight as we turn around a bend in the river to be confronted by a gaggle of elephants, saddled up and tethered along the riverbank, a mounting hut dominant and waiting our arrival.

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Before climbing into the saddle be sure to buy at least three bags of elephant food at 20 THB each or three for 50 THB. These consist of bananas and cut sugar cane and help the elephant’s food intake of up to 400 kg a day. The saddle is cramped for two people and one leg hangs over a square steel frame, but you’re too preoccupied at this stage to care as you mount and head off down the main street of the village towards the distant mountains. But, the first thing I learn about our elephant, apart from her name being ‘Rumpoon’, is that she doesn’t like the sound motorcars or motorbikes and starts to turn for home. The mahout gives out a shrill order and a rub behind the ears with his feet, she reluctantly obeys and continues in the right direction after the motorists have passed.

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The ‘safari’ I’m on is for two hours and Rumpoon’s slow, gentle stride takes us through farmland, hillside plantations and into the jungle high in the mountains. The trail followed gets thinner and at various times Rumpoon chooses the trickle of a watercourse to follow. The trail can be very steep and high up in the mountains the drop each side can be worrying, but the elephant is no fool and considers each step taken with great care. Her step is soft leaving little if any foot print in the ground as she shuffles slowly along, sometimes too slow for the mahout who can get a little impatient and gives out with a whack of a heavy chain, a disturbing action that makes my guide Joy issue a complaint.

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As food is thrown in front of Rumpoon regularly she’ll quicken her step to sniff out the offering, deftly curl her trunk around the sugarcane or bunch of bananas and lift to her mouth. After a time the mahout dismounts from Rumpoon and I’m offered his place. Sliding out of the saddle and onto her neck, I now have unencumbered contact as I rest my feet behind her ears and pat her coarse, hairy head, my level of emotion is lifted as I feel the power yet gentleness of this graceful 41-year-old lady. Then as if in protest at the mahout, who is now walking behind her, she aims a 2-gallon sneeze at him. What a wonderful gesture, I feel.

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At the end of the 2-hour trek and after I’d returned to the saddle, we reach our destination on the other side of the mountain. Saddle-sore we climb out, buy three more bags of food, which is devoured immediately and sadly bid farewell to our gentle friend.

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Posted by DenOS.08 22:05 Archived in Thailand Tagged animal Comments (2)

Bangkok in a flash

Filling in a few hours in the heart of the concrete jungle

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Flying into the new Suvarnabhumi International Airport from Budapest gives you the first hint of what’s to come in the vast metropolis of Bangkok. The airport is huge and its architecture as erratic and a little over the top as is downtown with its mega sized shopping complexes and the criss-cross of heavy concrete skyways and over passes that tend to knit together in one massive concrete jungle. The constant traffic snarls at ground level makes you realise that these elevated passageways are the only safest way get from one side of the broad, choked street to the other, forcing pedestrians to navigate on high in an atmosphere of thick pollution from the crawling, tooting traffic below. It’s almost as if airports reflect the good or bad growth of the city they service for the older Don Mueang Airport is far more simpler as probably Bangkok was years ago.


So, I arrive late afternoon and have a flight to catch early the next afternoon giving me an evening and a morning to experience what I can of Bangkok. Having done some research, I decided to stay overnight at a little cheap hostel called Wendy’s House. Basically for backpackers but as I’m starting to realise the 60-plusses are now having their second go at youthful travel, or maybe reliving their hippy days, and are a good percentage of inmates. Wendy’s is in a small street near the Siam Centre and the massive Central World Plaza and for about $30 a night with breakfast and friendly, helpful staff, it’s small but fine.

So checked in, now what do I do as the sun is starting to go down and I’m getting hungry? I go across the concrete overpasses to the MBK complex. Here on the fifth floor is a more upmarket hawkers food bazaar called, naturally, the Fifth Floor Avenue Food Hall. You enter the pristine compound and given a smart card, unfortunately no photography allowed inside so I can’t show you the checkout, but it’s very much like the hawkers food stalls that are still spread across outer parts of the city and across Asia. The prices are a little higher but for around $10 you can still have a substantial meal and a beer from a pretty good variety of international cuisines. You make your choice of dishes from the snap-frozen displays, your card is swiped and you’re given a receipt. Your dish is freshly coked on the spot and when you’ve finished your meal you pay the total of you receipts as you exit. The large eating area that is extremely well managed and kept very clean.

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After a meal I was a bit tired so a stroll back across the bridge to the Siam Discovery Centre to watch a bit of skateboarding in the Centres atrium with thrills and spills aplenty.

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Next morning after an ample breakfast I longed for a Thai massage. This is what every visitor must have but be aware that there are varying degrees of those whose hands will be upon you as to their ability to give a good, strong massage. The parlour across opposite Wendy’s I can recommend.

With a new sense of wellbeing, I headed for the Jim Thompson Silk Museum in the next street. A 30-minute tour costs 100THB and is most interesting to hear of this American who reinvigorated the silk industry in Thailand last century and over this period managed to build a remarkable collection of rare and valuable art objects. He disappeared while on holidays in Malaysia in his 61st year (the age of his predicted death by his astrology reading) and no trace of his body has been found to this day.

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With only an hour left before heading back to the domestic airport, Don Mueang, and catching a flight up north, I thought, while I’m up here in the hovering world of the pedestrian, I’ll go for a ride in the Sky Train, the elevated train that shares one of the concrete corridors. For 35THB (just over a dollar) you can travel into five zones (13THB for one zone). The ride gives another aspect to Bangkok and you get a greater understanding of the growth of this city coming eye-to-eye with tall buildings as you weave you way through them.


Bangkok is huge and I only saw a minute example of what’s offered, but you can in a very short time get to feel the excitement and energy of this city and unfortunately breathe in its fumes at the same time!

Posted by DenOS.08 17:25 Archived in Thailand Comments (0)

Cesky Budejovice to Budapest by train

Sit back and enjoy the show

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My decision to train it to Budapest from the city of Cesky Budejovice, south of Prague, was made for two reasons. First, to rest my weary legs from walking non-stop around Amsterdam and Prague for two weeks, and second, to savor some of the countryside from ground level as opposed to glimpses between winter clouds.


I decided to choose the route via Wien (Vienna) that would take me through the Southern Bohemia Region, Austria and into Hungary with a change of trains in Linz, Austria This second leg train is reserved seating. The cost is about 67euro, a bit more expensive than the route through the Czech Republic via Brno and into Hungary. This train originates from Prague and passes through Cesky Budejovice.

The weather is a little un-seasonal as temperatures are around the 16 to 18 degrees for the last month of winter, so the fields are being prepared for the spring crops adding some beautiful patterns to the passing landscapes.

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The one thing that did interest and excite me was the large wind farms spreading across parts of Austria. If they can do it, one may ask? To me they add a sort of elegant and calming beauty knowing they help to address our world devastating past misuse.


The first leg from Cesky Budejovice to Linz takes two hours and the second leg to Budapest a longer five hours. The trains are smooth and comfortable and maybe it’s the time of the year, but I managed to have a compartment all to myself for most of the way. Station directions are easy to follow and the Linz station is quite large and modern.

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One thing about traveling by train through Europe and crossing three borders in one day, these days there's no borders and it's difficult to know what country you're in most of the time, so I only hope I've captioned these pictures with the correct location.

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Like all visitors stepping off any form of transport in any European or Asian city, you will be greeted enthusiastically by touts offering taxis, accommodation or any other form of traveller comforts and Budapest is no exception, but hesitate before accepting and read up on trusted and metered taxi companies to deal with or you could be parting with to much of your hard earned.


One last thing about the European stations I have entered or exited, be it Amsterdam, Prague and now Budapest, the scene that greets you is one of a construction site. Let’s hope that what’s finally constructed offers the visitor a friendlier and more attractive welcome.


Posted by DenOS.08 17:15 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged train_travel Comments (0)

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