Getting Around Thailand Pt 2. – Islands and Other Regions

In the last post we covered getting around Bangkok. There are a few other modes of transportation you might want to be familiar with if you’re planning to visit any of the islands or other regions of Thailand. 

If you are wanting to get to the farthest cities from Bangkok, like Chiang Mai or Phuket, then flying is by far the best way to do so. Both of these cities take a little over an hour to fly to from Bangkok. It’s not just convenient for the furthest cities but also for some of the islands. For example, if you want to get to some of the Gulf islands like Ko Tao or Ko Phan Ngan, flying into Koh Samui is the easiest way. If you’re going further south than Phuket on the Andaman Sea to Koh Lanta, you have the option of flying into Phuket and taking a ferry the rest of the way or flying into the Krabi airport and taking a taxi to your final destination. One other noteworthy region worth mentioning is Khao Sok National Park. Located in the middle of the southern peninsula in the Surat Thani province, this is one of the top places to visit in Thailand. With floating bungalows, rare species of wildlife, towerlike limestone karst formations, and the beautiful blue Cheow Lan Lake, this is a fantastic stop between Bangkok and diving in Koh Tao. Luckily Surat Thani has an airport making Khao Sok easy to add to your itinerary.

There are two airports in Bangkok, Suvarnabhumi International (BKK) and Don Mueang (DMK). Although both of these airports have domestic and international flights, Don Mueang is more domestic flight oriented. As far as pricing is concerned, these airlines are quite affordable with rates as low as $35 (low season) $65 (high season) for a round trip ticket. The reason for this is because there is so much competition.

But, there is one exception to this. Because Bangkok Airways is the only airline that flies to the Thai island of Samui, the average price is over $150-$200 round trip. As mentioned above flying into Koh Samui is the best way to get to the gulf islands of Koh Tao and Koh Phan Hgan.

Flying is recommended when possible and will get you most of the way there, but you’ll need to hop on a secondary mode of transportation to get the rest of the way. One of the most notable, especially in the southern part of the country, are ferries. Ferries and longboats are the main mode of transportation to many of the islands in Thailand. Where and how to buy a ticket somewhat depends on your situation. You can buy a ticket directly at the pier or you can combine transportation such as bus/ferry or van/ferry tickets if you need to get to and from the pier as well. The best resource for combining transportation is https://12go.asia/en, you can find all ticket options on their site. 

Price varies depending on the type of ferry, the company, destination and distance. For example: 

  • Koh Samui to Koh Phangan 30 minutes 300 baht
  • Koh Samui to Koh Tao 2 hours 600 baht
  • Koh Lanta to Phuket 2-3 hours 1,000-1,500 baht

All ferry schedules can be found easily online. Avoid taking ferries during inclement weather if possible.

With nearly 2500 miles of rail, Thailand loves its trains. Traveling by train can take longer than a bus but if you’re willing to travel in the lower class options it can be a great way to budget. Trains are also much safer and considering Thailand ranks second for road accident deaths, might be worth considering. Thailand has six rail lines; Northern, Southern, Eastern, Northeastern, the Mae Klong, and Historical lines. These lines are all connected through the Hua Lamphong Railway Station in central Bangkok. 

There are four types of trains: Ordinary (local), Rapid, Express, and Special Express that vary in speed and comfort (listed in increasing order). The long-distance trains do have a first, second, and third class so depending on how important air conditioning is you have options. For a luxury train experience, there’s the private E&O Express (named after the famous Eastern & Oriental Hotel in Penang, Malaysia) that does one-way trips between Bangkok and Singapore plus a loop from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and back, with stops and tours along the way.

Most of the long-distance destinations like Chiang Mai or Phuket will average 8-13 hours depending on the train, how many stops, etc. There is also the fact that almost all trains will travel overnight so not only will you save money on transport, you will save a night of accommodations.

Buses are another popular means of travel in Thailand. Long-distance travel by bus can get you to just about any city in Thailand. There are a variety of options from basic and non-air conditioned to more luxurious buses that include rests tops and a meal. Some daily buses offer television, snacks, WiFi and overnight buses will have reclining seats and blankets. If you are going to some of the furthest cities time can be a negative. Typically 10-12 hours to Chiang Mai or 12-14 to Phuket from Bangkok. Bangkok has three major bus terminals: 

Northern Terminal, Mo Chit – Bangkok’s largest terminal serving north and northeastern Thailand like Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and Isaan.

Eastern Terminal, Ekkamal – The smallest terminal and services the east coast including Rayong, Suratthani, and Pattaya.

Southern Terminal, Sal Tal Mal – This terminal serves southern cities such as Krabi, Phuket, and Koh Samui 

Getting tickets is easy. Locals recommend that you purchase your ticket at a bus station to avoid scams however online at 12go.asia/en link mentioned above is a great resource. Prices for getting to Chiang Mai for example range from $25-$35. 

My absolute favorite way to explore the islands is by scooter. You don’t want to go long distances per se, but there is no better way to explore the islands and other areas. You will need a driver’s license from your home country if you want to rent a scooter. Do not give your passport! This is a common scam where the rental place will try to claim and charge for damages before releasing your passport. It is illegal to be without your passport in Thailand. Instead, ask if you can leave a cash deposit (usually 2000-4000 baht) and a copy of your passport. If they refuse, just go elsewhere.

Most rental places won’t ask to see a motorcycle license, although it is technically illegal to drive a motorbike in Thailand without one. If you’re stopped by Thai police, they might ask to see your passport/regular driver’s license. Just know that you are taking that risk and the officer will likely fine you on the spot…which is probably also illegal. For this reason and because of Thailand’s overall safety rankings, I recommend sticking to the islands and non-congested areas. Which brings us to the next point, wear a helmet and shoes! 

Insurance is not required but, you should consider renting from somewhere that offers. Find the procedure for a claim and what is covered before renting. If they don’t offer insurance consider going elsewhere. As mentioned before, if you don’t have a motorcycle license where you’re from, then you are technically driving illegally in Thailand. For that reason, travel insurance will not cover you if you get into an accident. Even if it wasn’t, because you’re a tourist, most accidents will be considered your fault. Negotiate it down as much as you can and move on. https://safetywing.com/nomad-insurance is a good resource for travel medical insurance that covers driving a scooter in Thailand. 

We mentioned renting a car in part one and how it was a terrible idea. Outside Bangkok and congested areas driving is a more feasible concept. The added hassle of fueling up, navigating, parking etc. isn’t worth it. For that and many other reasons, I don’t recommend renting.

Another transportation method you might see on the islands and other places are Songthaews (meaning “two rows” in Thai). A songthaew is basically a covered pickup with two benches in the back and operates like a taxi. Flag them down and tell the driver your destination. If they don’t stop, chances are it’s full. On the islands, I saw many Songthaews transporting people to the pier for snorkeling/diving tours. Prices can range from 20 to 100 baht and usually don’t go higher than that. Besides a great way to get around it’s also a good way to meet other people. 

These are the best ways to get around Thailand. Remember to carry some change with you!

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