Tips on how to easily get around Thailand on the cheap using public transport. The best way to discover more of this beautiful country.
Travelling to a new destination is exciting. Experiencing new cultures, indulging in local cuisine and exploring foreign places, are some of the experiences we most look forward to when we travel. But more times than often, we seldom explore further than the boundaries of our resort, village, city or island simply because we just don’t know how to use transport systems abroad.
This blog will cover how you can make use of the public transport in Thailand (road, rail and sea) to easily and confidently explore this beautiful paradise.
The Fastest Transport to Get Around Thailand
Flying is generally the fastest way to get anywhere in Thailand but it comes at a premium. Travelling by road, rail or sea is usually a cheaper alternative to flying. Although flights in Thailand (and generally in Southeast Asia) are cheaper than in Europe and other parts of the world, you can save even more money, if you consider taking one of these alternative modes of transport. Not only are these modes generally cheaper, they’re also a great way of exploring more of this beautiful country.
It’s important to bear in mind that not all places in Thailand are accessible by plane. Some unique and remote places are only accessible by road, rail or sea so it’s a great idea to consider other public transport options if you’d like to discover hidden gems in Thailand.
What is the Best Way to Get Around Thailand
The best option depends on where and how far your destination is. Most routes between popular destinations in Thailand have already been defined with regular and direct transport services available on a daily basis from major towns and cities (Bangkok, Surat Thani, Phuket, etc.). These routes are usually displayed on timetables at local travel agencies, bus stops and online (12Go Asia). Certain defined routes may include a combination of two or more modes of transport.
Public Transport in Thailand
One thing that really confused the hell out of us is the term “public”. In Thailand, it is so broadly used that all operators, whether bus, rail or ferry transport services (in our case bus and ferry), are commonly referred to as public even though they are operated privately. But we’ll differentiate the various options so you can pick an operator that suits your pocket.
Buses in Thailand: Private vs Public Operated Buses
The main difference between a privately- and a publicly-operated transport service is simply price, speed and comfort. Often there are a number of privately operated services competing with each other, but departing at different times. So pick one that matches your time schedule.
Lomprayah High Speed Operator
We used a private operator called Lomprayah from Krabi to Koh Phangan because we found that the costs were similar to other privately run operators. Lomprayah cost 100 Baht more (which is less than €3), but we got what we paid for. The cabin was air-conditioned, the route was direct (non-stop) and the ferry was faster (by at least an hour). The staff also spoke relatively good English, which is great if you don’t speak any Thai.
This is how we did it:
Getting from Krabi to Koh Samui, Koh Phangan and Koh Tao
- A Lomprayah minibus transfer to their main bus station in Krabi (collected us from a meeting point close to our hotel)
- Arrive at Lomprayah main bus station to get stickers for bags and yourself (so you know which bus to get on)
- Get on super comfy, air-conditioned bus for a 3 hour ride to Don Sak port
- At the port, wait for your destination to be called so you get on the right ferry
- Ferry took around 3-5 hours depending on sea conditions. The ferry will first stop at Koh Samui, then Koh Phangan and lastly Koh Tau
Total Cost (to Koh Phangan): 700 baht (we opted for the fast ferry which arrived an hour earlier). The slower ferry is 600 baht.
Total Travel Time: 7 hoursOur journey involved bus, minibus and ferry, but it was effortless to say the least.
If your desired route is not available, relax! Don’t despair. You just have to be creative and combine two or more defined routes to reach your destination. Very easy!
Try to get on the ferry as soon as possible. Your ticket reserves a spot but does not specify a seat number. If you’re one of the last comers on the ferry, you may have to sit in the uncovered sections. This is fine if the weather is great, but if it’s raining…. (you get the point).
Also, bring water and snacks for the trip. You can buy at the bus or ferry stations, but it will be sold at a premium compared to 7 Eleven.
Public Buses in Thailand: The Real Deal
On the other hand, the public bus is not for the faint hearted. Don’t get us wrong. We weren’t born with silver spoons in our mouths but you’ll have to be more open minded and adventurous to use a public bus.
We took the public bus from Khao Sok to Ranong and from Ranong to Phuket and it cost almost a fifth (220 and 250 Baht respectively) compared to a private mini-van (1000 Baht per person).
The cabin was air-conditioned but stopped working half way through the journey. The commute took significantly longer because the bus was visually older and stopped every few kilometres at the request of commuters wishing to disembark.
Their staff didn’t speak much English (understandable, since we’re in their country) so we had to rely on a mix of Google Maps, Google Translate and hand gestures to explain where we were getting off. And the toilet was pretty much out of service, unless you were willing to hold yourself still in a moving bus with one hand, while pinning down your cell phone under your chin (for light), and simultaneously handling your junk with the other hand. TMI?
It wasn’t our finest moment, but we would totally do it again if time is not a factor. After all, why would you pay 5 times the price when you can bake in a bus for 7 hours. We’re not being sarcastic at all. It’s just our inner “thriftiness” coming out.
How to Buy Cheap Bus, Train and Ferry Tickets in Thailand
There are only three options: street-side agents, online agents or directly from the operator. You can buy bus, rail and ferry tickets with ease and on the cheap using any of these three ways. Prices are fixed so either way is just as easy and cheap. One advantage of buying from a street-side agent is that they’ll arrange for you to be picked up from your hotel and taken to the terminal, station or pier at an additional small fee (no need to carry those heavy bags around) or at no extra charge if your hotel is within a certain zone. Fares are usually displayed on boards or on request, so just shop around first to make sure you’re not paying more than you have to.
The other option is to buy your ticket via an online agent such as 12Go Asia. The advantage of buying tickets online is that you can compare prices to see if you’re getting the best deal. You can also pay with a credit card without being charged an additional 3 to 4% fee which is the norm in Thailand.
As we’ve said before, fares from street-side and online agents are usually the same. But don’t take our word for it. Always compare prices to see if you’re getting the best fare. Feel free to use the 12Go Asia search form (below) to compare prices online before buying your tickets.
Is Public Transport Safe in Thailand
We’ve all imagined an overcrowded bus with livestock and baggage tied to its roof. Maybe that’s just us considering that’s what you can expect from public transport in Africa. But that’s not the case in Thailand. Having asked locals about getting around in Thailand, many of them recommended we use the public bus, train or ferry. They themselves rely on it and, frankly, if it’s good enough for them, then it’s good enough for us too.
We’ve personally taken the public bus various times and beside it taking a little longer because of the countless stops along the route dropping off and picking up passengers, it’s 100% safe. Some of them are so nice that you can even charge your phone and watch TV (if you have a VHS tape…). In fact, on some occasions, government officials carried out safety inspections on our bus before departure to ensure that it was roadworthy. If that’s not piece of mind then not even The Avengers can reassure you!
Discover Hidden Gems in Thailand
Getting around Thailand easily and on the cheap is absolutely possible. We’re living proof. We were pleasantly surprised at how affordable, efficient and extensive Thailand’s transport system is.
Learning how to get around and how to buy tickets in Thailand really gave us confidence to discover more of Thailand’s hidden gems. Some of which, include our recent discovery of the beautiful beaches in Koh Phangan, Khao Sok National Park, embarking on our first scuba diving liveaboard experience around Similan and Surin Islands and going on some of the most exhilarating hikes on our 3 day trip in Krabi.
If it’s your first time travelling to Thailand, make sure you read our 7 Krabi travel tips. We may have written it specifically for Krabi, but most of the tips are applicable for travelling anywhere in Thailand. We share useful tips like how much to budget daily, whether it is card friendly and even how to rent a scooter in Thailand.
Next time you’re in Thailand, jump on train, bus or ferry and travel like we did, and you too can discover hidden gems in Thailand.
Let us know if you have any questions about how to get around Thailand or if you’d like us to write a post about how to get around another country you’re planning to visit.