A Travellerspoint blog

Thailand

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.

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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)

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.

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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.

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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)

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