A to B by the South China Sea . . .
Walking is a fantastic way to get around normally and there's nothing better than a brisk stroll on a lovely day. However, turn up the heat a little and all but the most resilient among us will swiftly find better ways to get about. Thailand is hot, in fact it's very hot, and the idea of walking anywhere further than the local shops can suddenly seem like a marathon.
So what is the best way from A to B in this sweltering nation? Well there's a million different forms of transport available to you but each has it's own price. Firstly you have to try the trains, Thailand's extensive rail network is a glorious way to see the country, it's inexpensive, fast, comfortable and will honour you with the most breathtaking scenery you'll see any where on Earth. Trains run from Bangkok to most large towns and cities and the popular overnight sleeper trains will whisk you to the south in grand style even in 2nd class. Keep your eyes on your baggage though as stops are frequent and people jump off and on the carriages constantly, with that in mind it's worth remembering that you luggage is as much a temptation to your fellow travellers as it is to the locals. You'll meet many kindred spirits on these journeys and while caution is prudent, regarding your valuables, downright paranoia is a little extreme and for the most part you'll enjoy long tales and cold drinks as your gleaming coach speeds for its terminus.
If you can't afford to travel by train or more likely can't get a ticket because of high demand you could take one of the many VIP buses you'll see advertised everywhere. These buses are generally very comfortable and very cheap but once again you'll find there's a downside. The drivers on these coaches don't get paid by the hour but rather for each journey they complete because of this you'll find that they will try and break the sound barrier on every trip and these coaches can hit some speeds on the highways (or the dirt track, blind corner, mountain path, etc.) Travelling by coach in Thailand is not for the faint hearted and crashes are scarily regular. But the brave and lucky amongst you will probably have a smooth if slightly swift journey. You may however not be so lucky and spend hours on a verge or stranded by the side of the road while the police try and track down the driver who's legged it after hitting a water buffalo. On the bright side you may get to see a recent movie while you enjoy the company of other budget travellers and a bottle of wine or two.
Hitting the Islands? Well you're going to need a ferry. (Or a plane but we'll get to planes in a minute). There are loads of different ferries operating on both sides of the Thai coast and depending on your preference, and budget, you could end up on a hydrofoil, a rusty old car ferry, a speedboat, a long tail boat, a charted yacht or a hundred year old Chinese junk. The cheapest way to travel the seas is usually a car ferry. These big old liners operate the more profitable routes from island to island and thus are able to knock a few bucks off everyone else's rates, safety is again of some concern regarding these old ships which are most likely to be the ' old roll-on-roll-off ' type of vessel which are banned in most countries in the world. They also suffer from having rather deep hulls, which is not much use for the shallow waterways that are common through out Thailand. Although uncommon it's not unheard of for passengers to be forced to disembark before reaching the port should the vessel become grounded. The high-speed ferries, which operate many of the same routes, tend to be a bit more expensive but can cut journey time down quite substantially. These vehicles tend to range from large riverboats to the odd hydrofoil and can generally pick up quite a rate of knots. They do tend to get fairly crowded in high season and that can put shade at a premium, so try and sort out some decent sun block and a hat before climbing aboard. On shorter trips you'll find many local sailors offering passage by long tail or speedboat. Long tails are the preferred and traditional choice of the local Thai mariners who build there own wooden, open decked boats themselves without any plans or blueprints. They can vary in size from ten feet to ten metres (and beyond) and are powered by a huge exposed engine mounted at the rear. The engines are big enough to propel buses and can really shift the light crafts at some speed. Unfortunately these engines are far from ecologically sound and emit nasty fumes as well as a horrific roar when in full steam. The propellers are also somewhat unsound when it comes to looking after our oceans as they reach quite far under the boat and have been known to churn up coral and other sea life. In one recent case a long tail boat actually caused the death of a rare Whale Shark which was unlucky enough to be in the path of the boat and was run over and sliced up by the force of the huge motor driving the propeller. Still handled well, as most of these boats are, they can transport large numbers of passengers inexpensively to nearby islands and there's no better to way to feel like one of the locals than cruising past the speed boats and ferries on a tiny long tail. Speaking of speed boats, as mentioned earlier you can charter these vessels at many ports and beaches and, for an arm and a leg, you can race up the coast in these sea going rockets and feel every bump and grind in the process, an expensive but fun way to get around. You may find that finding speedboats is trickier these days as the neighbouring Burmese navy is picking up a worrying habit of pinching them to replace their older ships which are rapidly becoming too slow to catch the smugglers and pirates infesting their waters. More than one local speed boat owner has woken up to find his boat gone and then discovered it later painted grey with a gun mounted on the front now proudly displaying Burmese colors. If you can afford to charter, or are lucky enough to find passage as crew on, a private yacht then the journey truly becomes an adventure. Look out for posters near yacht clubs and boat lagoons but make sure you have enough time for the trip, which may take weeks to complete. With private yachts you may even be able to find passage back home to the States or to India and then on to Europe if you're prepared to face the odd typhoon or tropical storm. Other pleasure craft, like the junk, offer cruises rather than taking the fast, fixed route and if money is no object you could feast on a gourmet buffet while traditional music and dance accompany the meal.
Lack time? Why not fly? Compared to the west domestic flights within Thailand are frequent and inexpensive and offer a good safety record for your money. Pilots are well trained and the planes themselves are in good condition and maintained to a high standard. You can fly to many large towns and cities and also to many of the islands and even out to other countries for less money than a train ticket back home. Needless to say you'll see some breathtaking scenery and slice hours off your journey. There are many companies offering cheap internal flights including well-known airlines like Thai and Bangkok but also some smaller companies like Andaman Air based in Phuket.
For every day moving around you can always rely on the frequent local buses, which range in size from pick up trucks with a bench in the back to full size juggernaughts. These cheap, if uncomfortable run-arounds are not to be confused with the national VIP buses and seem to plod along at a far more relaxing rate. Their slow progress is down to the way they operate which involves driving along at about ten miles an hour and stopping every time someone puts their hand out, as the drivers seem to get paid by getting as many people as they can on the bus, they will actually stop and try to convince people to get on and are so terrified of missing a single customer that they'll rarely go over their average ten miles an hour. As you can imagine they can get a little crowded and you can sometimes get the impression that you're taking part in a world record attempt with fifty people on the back of a truck and a further twenty on the roof, still they're a lot of fun and very, very, very cheap. Their only drawback is that for some insane reason they only seem to operate during the daytime, in some places, leaving you facing an expensive taxi or Tuk Tuk return fare if you intend to stay after six o'clock at night. Tuk Tuks, Taxis and Mini vans all basically offer the same service for roughly the same price you can get better rates in the latter two if you are part of a large group as these vehicles tend to have fixed rates for most destinations and two will travel for the same price as four or six or eight (I'm told you can get eight people in A Tuk Tuk but you would have to know each other really well). Tuk Tuks are the most fun of the private taxis and are basically tiny little vans with two seats facing each other in the back covered in streamers and Christmas tree lights. There once was a time when you could negotiate fairly successfully with the drivers but they seem to be far more organised now and will happily let you walk off rather than let their prices drop as they know you won't find another driver who will give you a better rate.
Long-term transport options are many in Thailand and before setting out to pick up you own set of wheels you should be aware of the following facts. Driving in Thailand is extremely dangerous, many people die on Thailand's roads each year and most of these deaths feature motorcycles. Apart from the poor condition of some of the roads and the high rate of drink driving, both by the Thai's and the holidaymakers, here are some less obvious hazards to watch out for.
Hazard one - The motor bike with five people on the back, doing seventy miles an hour, in the dark without any lights on and travelling on the wrong side of the road.
Hazard two - The farmer and his herd of massive water buffalo/goats/elephants which tend to prefer the grazing to be had on the verges of the highways.
Hazard three - The blind old woman who will against all the odds attempt to walk up the centre of the narrowest road because she's been doing that for two hundred years and doesn't see why she should stop now just because of a few cars.
Hazard four - The road workers who seem to have forgotten to patch up the ten foot hole in the road they were working on last week.
Hazard five - The Thai truck driver who has been driving non stop for three days and has probably started to hallucinate due to lack of sleep and vast quantities of Red Bull.
On a more serious note though you must be aware that there is no form of insurance for motorbikes and even if have cover for your hired car a crash is still going to dent your funds badly. Some of the motorbike hire shops will actually promise you free cover even though no such policy exists and if you do crash your bike, then it doesn't matter if there's only a scratch on the petrol tank the repairs are going to cost you.
I was unfortunate enough to crash one of these hire bikes recently and although the repairs seemed minor, a cracked plastic fairing invisible to the naked eye and a broken wing mirror, there was no way I was getting my pass port back until an agreement had been made. I was lucky however and a Thai friend of mine helped me negotiate a reasonable charge. Of course I was still charged five times what the actual repairs would have cost and had it not have been for my friends help I could quite easily have been forced to buy the damn machine.
The more unscrupulous hire companies can make more money from bogus repair charges than they do from the rentals and a few have even been known to bleed brake fluid from the bikes to increase the chances of you taking a tumble, although these companies are mercifully rare it's worth asking around before deciding on where to hire your bike from.
Riding a motor bike can be a lot of fun but also very dangerous and you should never drive if you've been drinking also remember that in Thailand it is illegal to drive without a helmet on, try and get the hire shop to give you a decent helmet as there are a lot of poor quality ones out there, you'll see a lot of the locals driving without them but they tend to know where the police check points are and you may come across big groups of people stopping before a large intersection or roundabout quickly putting their helmets on, you can bet then that within five hundred yards there'll be a police check.
Hiring cars can be a good way to get about and you'll find that these vehicles fall into three categories Pickup trucks (Thailand is the second biggest market in the world for these cars), Jeeps and saloon cars. Unlike motorbikes hire cars can be legally insured in the country and as such it's a good idea to find the hire shop with the best cover. Thailand is a nation of frustrated Rally drivers and they all seem to be able to drive at great speed on the most harrowing of roads. They will of course expect the same from you and your driving so don't be surprised to find them trying to usher you through a gap in the traffic, which will leave your car inches to spare, or pulling out in front of you forcing you to brake hard or swerve into the middle of the road. All Thai roads seem to have three lanes, even the single track ones, and as far as I can work out they operate with the following rules. Cars drive on the left with the oncoming traffic in the opposite lane unless the driver is late in which case they can use the middle of the road to go very fast if some one else is not using the middle of the road first. The sides of each road can be used as a shortcut by huge cement trucks that will thunder towards you lights flashing until you drive into the ditch beside the road. Thai traffic lights similarly do not seem to operate in the same fashion as they do back home. My translation is not to be taken too literally but I think it goes a little like this. Green - Go, Amber - Go very Fast, Red - Go Faster and Amber Flashing - Jump to light speed.
Finally a word about driving in Bangkok. The author would like to add the following advice... Do not under any circumstances attempt this. If you insist on trying to navigate the congested streets of Thailand's largest city get some practise in first and register yourself for The Paris - Dakar Rally. If you finish the race in the top ten you could be ready for a trip to the shops in the capital.
Published on 8/8/01