The Great Thailand Transport Conundrum
Bus from Surat Thani train station to Donsak ferry port
The plane journey from your home country to Bangkok is likely to be hard going. Unless you already in Asia it is going to be a long flight. No avoiding it and you have no alternative but to deal with it. The next step – getting to your final destination in Thailand from Bangkok – is open to more debate. It can be an extension of the hell you suffered on the plane or a very pleasant part of your holiday if you plan it right. Most times, however, things do not work out quite how you would like and it is a matter of compromise: time versus comfort, cost versus comfort, etc etc. And this is the ‘Great Thailand Transport Conundrum’ about which I talk more below.
Conundrum 1: To book in advance or not to book in advance?
For sure book in advance if you can. Yes it costs an extra 10% to book in advance, but that is a lot less than forfeited hotel bookings and evenings wasted somewhere you didn’t want to be. Be smart, book early, and pay the extra.
Buy Thailand Bus and Train Tickets
Last time I came back from Europe I booked an advance train ticket for a departure the same day I landed in Bangkok. I got in an hour late, but still had time to get to the train station, collect my train ticket from the agent, have dinner and get on my train. If I had not have booked in advance there would have been no chance of buying a ticket for travel on the same day.
Conundrum 2: Bus, Train, or Plane?
My 2nd class seat before it was folded down into a bed
Depends on where you going from and to.
Doing the journey by flying is sometimes great, but sometimes flights can be very expensive or the airport is inconveniently located or the schedule does not fit in with your connections. If you are going up to the north or north east plane travel can be very inexpensive and quick compared to other forms of transport. For some of the Southern destinations (like Koh Samui) the ticket price is expensive and flights often are over-subscribed.
For these reasons, despite the obvious benefits of quick travel the bus and the train remain very popular and in some cases taking a bus or a train will work out much better
Take the example of my recent trip back to Koh Phangan from Bangkok, after an overnight flight. I could have taken another plane but I would have had to go straight to another flight and then later have had to have dealt with checking into a hotel in another city as I could not have got to Koh Phangan the same day.
The boat to Koh Phangan
The bus would have been even more tiring. If I had taken an overnight bus I would not have slept very well and if I had done it in the morning then I would had an early night and a journey undertaken in the heat of the day. So I opted for the train. My flight touched down at 16.00 and I got to my train seat for about 19.00, after stopping for dinner and drinking a couple of beers, well in advance of my 19.30 departure. On the train I had a read of my book and it did not feel like long until it was 8.30 pm – the time they normally put the beds down on overnight journeys – so I slowly finished my beverage, and went to sleep soundly until 07.00. The next morning I felt much refreshed when I arrived at Surat Thani. There was an hour or so for me to grab I a coffee before getting the bus and boat service to Koh Phangan.
Conundrum 3: Spend the night in Bangkok or go straight to somewhere else?
This depends on much time you have.
Over 800 Bangkok Hotels
I had somewhere to get to in a hurry to so I did not spend the night in Bangkok. If you do not then for sure spend a night or two in Bangkok. Bangkok is a large and diverse city. It has taken a while but now I absolutely love the place. It is a giant heated vat of cultural dynamics and bad driving. It smells a bit also. But there is so much to explore and appreciate (if you are of the right mindset). This is a place of too great an importance as a centre point for ones of the world’s great cultures to bypass, even though this bustling city can be harsh on the unprepared.
The thing to understand about Bangkok is that is a city of villages, each with their own unique character. If your first impressions of Bangkok have not been good maybe you need to try staying somewhere else. There are unusual and unique residences run as independent small businesses all over Bangkok with a range of prices from cheap to extortionate.
When selecting you hotel the starting place is to consider location. There has been lots written about this subject, much of it complete nonsense. For the truth in less than 400 words, here in my quick rundown of the four main places of interest to stay in Bangkok:
The Sukhumvit Road runs all the way to the border with Cambodia, the section of the road which is popular with foreign visitors in the very start of the road in the modern part of Bangkok. All concrete buildings and busy streets, but with the city’s best range of bars, restaurants and clubs. Moderately expensive as an area to stay in. On certain streets there is very visible sex industry but that can be easily avoided all the bars and the clubs of this kind are confined to Soi 4 and Soi 21 (‘soi’ means side street in Thai and they are all given numbers). I like the Manhattan Hotel on soi 15 as it is great value for money.
An area taking in a collection of roads around the Silom Road. This area is famous the Patpong Night Market and being Bangkok’s financial district – all the big banks have their headquarters here. Cheaper than Sukhumvit, but not quite as flash. Plenty of good bars and restaurants. It’s a smart choice staying here because it is value for money and close to the river and temples. Downside can be the transport depending on where your hotel is. In theory there are lots of travel options, however, for some reason whenever I stay here I spend ages walking to and from any hotel I book.
Khao San Road
I have a love/hate relationship with the Khao San Road. On the one hand it’s a cliché of a place featuring an invented history for the consumption of a younger set of travellers. Some of the buildings are old but everything else is new. On the other hand, however, despite the hostels and backpackers restaurants, the place has certain charms and benefits. Firstly, it’s cheap except for the hotels unless you pick the right ones – I recommend either Mango Lagoon Place or Four Sons Place. Secondly, it is convenient for transport. Lots of bus service leave direct from near the Khao San Road. Thirdly, it is very near to the river and the major temples and palaces, if you can put up with the false dreadlocks and unimaginative food options then this can be a good place to stay.
The area around the Yaowarat Road is an exciting place to stay. It is well connected as the main train station and an MRT (underground) stop are both nearby. There is heaps of culture and lots of thing to visit. There are not, though, many non-Asian tourists who stay here and the place might be a little overwhelming for people new to Asia. The hotels are not great, the rooms are small and few of the hotels have facilities like swimming pools or gyms, however some such as the Check Inn China Town are comfortable enough. All in all it’s a bit of an effort to stay here – Western comforts are not readily available and you may encounter difficulties communicating – but it has the potential of providing a richly rewarding experience for the more adventurous traveller.