Busing Around Thailand — How to catch the bus!
Thailand is a big country, two thousand kilometres north to south and one thousand east to west. Travelling these kilometres in order to see all you can of this fantastic land can be a challenging task. You can fly, drive, or take the train—but most of the time the bus is the best option.
Here is how you can make that bus journey painless and hassle free.
First, travel (and most other things) in Thailand centres around the centrally located capital city of Bangkok. Bangkok houses one fifth of the Thai population so—all roads lead to Bangkok!
To travel across the Kingdom you will have to pass through Bangkok.
To service the many, many people who use the bus system there are three main bus terminals in Bangkok. The largest and busiest is “Mo Chit”. This is located to the north of Bangkok. It is the biggest and busiest with buses heading north as far as Chiang Mai and all points in between, and also with buses to Isarn (Esarn), north-east Thailand.
Second is the “Southern Bus Station” (Sai Tai Taling Chan), located in eastern Bangkok, with buses travelling south, down the Malay peninsula, past the famous resort islands, and as far as Hat Yai, eight hundred kilometres distant. The third and smallest station is the eastern bus station “Ekami”, with departures and arrivals from the south-eastern corner of Thailand (including the resort town of Pattaya).
This sounds fairly efficient and organised, and it mostly is, but not always and not every time. Travelling between the stations is a hassle. Ekami is on the Sky Train line, so it is easy to reach, but the other two stations require a local bus (slow, but cheap) or a taxi. To reach Mo chit you can take the Skytrain as far as the Mo chit Skytrain Station (not to be confused with the actual bus station), then there is a two-kilometre hike to the actual bus station. Do not attempt to walk, take a taxi or motorbike ($2) to the station.
The Southern Bus Station is not even near public transport—just take a taxi from your Bangkok hotel or guest house. The fee will be between 200 to 300 baht ($5-$8).
The Thai phrase for bus station/terminal is: “sathanee rot bus”. If in doubt say “bus”, and flash a photo of a bus on your phone. A taxi driver will know what you want.
When you arrive at your terminal buying a ticket the first few times can be a daunting process. These large stations are busy and busier. Arrive early, and ask the folk working there the location of the ticket office for your destination. You will be pointed in the correct direction, and usually given the number for the counter. Walk there and clearly and slowly state your city. You will be presented with a list of times, chose and pay. There is adequate English signage and a moderate, certainly functional amount of English spoken.
Easy enough, but—check—your ticket before you leave. You pay, you are responsible. Also and always, take a photo of your ticket. Handy in case of any problems.
As the magic hour of departure approaches, walk to your bus bay. Say 30 minutes before, often the empty bus will arrive well before departure, so you can sit and wait in comfort. Put your big bag in the locker under the bus (take a photo), but take your day bag, with your passport, computer, and important items, with you. Most bus lines supply a small bottle of water and a sugary snack, but it never hurts to fill your own water bottle.
The good news is that this is safe—problems, theft, and crashes do occur, but with extreme infrequency. Take precautions, but do not be put off. The other good news is that bus travel in Thailand is cheap. Expect to pay less than $30 to travel to Hat Yai from Bangkok. You may cost bus travel at $3-$4 per hundred kilometres. Also, there are frequent departures for popular destinations. Travel time varies during the day and week, but estimate your bus will travel an average of 70-80 kilometres an hour. Bangkok to Chiang Mai in less than 12 hours.
Comfort, not 100%, but comfortable enough—the seats are sizeable and recline, with footrests, and usually an onboard steward. The entertainment will be a Thai language movie (too loud) on a video screen (too small). An amusing sight is the occasional western movie dubbed into Thai.
Buses are a little noisy, take ear plugs, along with a neck pillow. Thai buses have tiny overhead racks, but you can put your LOCKED bag at the front of the bus or keep it next to you on the floor. A sign of a seasoned traveller is a hook, with which your bag can be hung conveniently out of the way.
You will also be given a blanket. Don’t dismiss, aircon in Thailand is always too much (just check a gold class cinema in Bangkok). After an hour on your bus, you will be wrapping the blanket around your legs.
To add to your choice there are several private bus companies operating in Thailand, plus the government bus company. The government transport company, Baw Khaw Saw (BKS) runs buses to every destination in the kingdom—not luxurious, but reliable and reasonable.
The elite bus company is Nakhonchai Air
This company is more expensive (top level twice the price), but with a far greater degree of comfort. Wider seats, better snacks and so forth. The company has its own bus terminals scattered around the Kingdom. The disadvantage is a (2017) Thai only website, which makes booking a bus difficult for tourists. Other top notch bus companies are The Transport Company and The Green Bus Company. The disadvantage is that they tend to travel only to the leading destinations.
Online booking is possible, but it is handled by third parties, separate companies. You order the ticket online and they pay for the ticket. You receive a booking number and use this to pick up your ticket at the station. This is a good option, that usually works, but arrive early to verify. You can book via phone, and pay at a 711, with the government line, but English. If you find a English speaking agent great, if not in can be an exercise in frustration. Give it a try.
When you book consider night travel. You can sleep (eye-mask) the night away before arriving at your next adventure.
If you are a solitary traveller know that some buses and some bus companies have a 1-2 division of seats. You can ask to book one of these single and separate seats. You get more leg room and a more private and comfortable journey.
Along the way, your bus will make several stops, every few hours, each about 20 minutes. Even with onboard toilets (most buses), it is good to step off the bus. The buses always stop at stations with food, drink, and sometimes a lot more for sale. At one of these stops, you will usually receive a complimentary buffet, hot (non-vegetarian) meal. The disadvantage is that sometimes these stops occur just as you doze off.
Take a photo of your bus, its registration number and the phone number of the company (usually on the side of the bus), just in case you miss your bus—don’t fall asleep during your break!
After you have arrived the best way to plan your departure is to take a photo of the bus time table. These are displayed on notice boards in the provincial bus stations. Photograph these when you arrive. When you are ready to leave, return to the station and buy your ticket a day in advance. Most Thai provincial bus stations are busy locales, with many people coming and going, taxi and tuk tuk drivers, motorbike rental shops, touts for hotels and tours, etc. Vibrant!
Most provincial bus stations are in the centre of the provincial capital—always of the same name as the province. They are usually old buildings, consisting of a line of covered bus bays and a seating area, a ticket office at one end, and parking and shops around. Some larger provincial cities (Chiang Mai, Phitsanulok, Korat, Ubon) have two bus stations. The first for inter-provincial, the second for intra-provincial travel. The now intra-provincial bus station was the original, which is now too small for the volume of traffic found in modern Thailand. The shiny new and second station will be located on the outskirts of the city. There is usually a shuttle service between the two. 20 baht for the trip, or a taxi. If in doubt, just ask.
You will need to get from the station to your hotel. In the smaller towns, you can walk, but a tuk tuk is always an alternative. You will never need to pay more than 100 baht ($3) in a provincial city, and every tuk tuk driver will know most of the hotels in these towns. If not, find the next guy.
The next level down from long distance bus travel is intra-provincial bus travel—to destinations within the province. This is where you will find slow, bumpy, and irregular travel. From the provincial stations, there will be dozens of small and worn buses setting off for the many villages and districts a few dozen kilometres away.
If you have a spot in a province you want to see go to the bus station and ask around. Ask the day before. Have the name of your destination written in Thai on paper to show to folk. Get the bus number. The next day ask several times if your bus is going where you hope it will. Usually, it does, but double check with your phone and google maps. The good news cheap cheap travel, the not so good, slow and bumpy—but, hey! adventure!
Try and avoid public holidays (Songkran) and weekends. The number of travellers doubles and triples, huge delays and even bigger crowds. You don’t want to be standing room only in a long line at 3 am after inhaling bus fumes all night, in the rain. Week day travel is best, however, most buses most of the time do run on schedule, mostly, but don’t set your watch by your bus.
A word on booking a bus from your hotel. Most of the time this is ok, but sometimes you will pay a great deal more and the magnificent VIP bus you are shown will metamorphose into its poor and small cousin. Before you book check reputations online and always take a photo of your hotel, the person selling you the ticket, and keep contact details on your phone. If there is a problem you want to fix it immediately.
In the southern provinces, tourist agencies try and direct tourists towards more expensive private buses. Also at some bus stations (Hat Yai certainly) touts will try and also sell you a private bus journey. Feel no hesitation in pushing past pushy people, and saying “NO!”. If in doubt ask around, and always buy your ticket at the ticket counter inside the station.
From the border bus stations, you can take buses to neighbouring countries. Sometimes unscrupulous ticket sellers will try and sell the unwary visas to these countries. If this offer is made to you, take your business elsewhere. Every country bordering Thailand, with the exception of Myanmar/Burma, has a visa on arrival, and the Burmese visa must be applied for in advance. Visas are—NOT—SOLD—from bus ticket counters.
Be advised that it is now a legal requirement for all bus passengers in the Kingdom to wear a seatbelt. Also, on some routes, you will now be charged extra for insurance and toll ways. These charges amount to only a few baht.
Buses—for journeys of less than five hundred kilometres they are the better choice. Sit back, relax, sip your water, and watch the fascinating neon lit, night countryside slide on by.