One thing Thailand does not lack for is a variety of transportation options. Unfortunately, pretty much all of these options have some pretty crucial drawbacks that can severely impact you showing up where you need to in any sort of a timely manner. Now that I've utilized each of these different options a number of times, I figure I'm as qualified as anyone to offer my, entirely unsolicited, thoughts on Thailand's choicest transportation methods and rank them accordingly.
Might as well start with the worst of the bunch. Vans are really just awful. They also happen to be a necessary evil. Living in Amata, on the outskirts of both Bangkok and Chon Buri city, vans are really the only option for getting out of the city. So basically, they have a monopoly on my ability to get anywhere worth going...and that's strike one right there.
Another, more reasonable, issue I have with the vans is space related. In an effort to maximize profits, or perhaps to test how people react to being crammed into a speeding metal box with up to 15 random strangers in some elaborate sociology experiment, the drivers often refuse to drive anywhere until the van is packed to (or sometimes beyond) capacity. This alone would be bad enough, but the fact that said speeding metal boxes are designed to seat people who on average are several inches shorter than myself does very little to improve the situation.
Then there's the drivers themselves. Now I don't want to generalize or anything, and there have been a few van drivers who haven't fit this assessment, but it's hard to shake the feeling that the majority are big amphetamine fans. They drive around at top speed, zigging and zagging in and out of traffic with the reckless abandon that's really only appropriate for playing Grand Theft Auto. Also, if you happen to be going somewhere farther out than the driver feels like driving it is not impossible to find the driver pulling over into a random gas station and demanding that you either pay them more money or get out and try to find another ride. While its not super common, this has happened to me more than once. I stopped counting awhile ago, but that's gotta be at least 3 strikes by now. Get outta here vans. I hate you.
Thailand's taxis are pretty standard. Really except for the steering wheel's placement, there's no difference between the taxis here and the ones back home. Taxis are ok I guess. I've never had much of an issue with taking a one. I've found that they're probably the most useful when traveling a relatively short distance with a group of people in Bangkok. It can be hard sometimes to find a driver willing to use the meter, but luckily there's usually a line of at least 3 or 4. If you can't reach a deal with one driver, just try your luck with the next guy. It usually doesn't take too long to find a guy who both knows where you're going and is willing to drive you there at a fair price.
When they do use the meter it generally doesn't end up costing too much...especially if you're splitting the fare with a few friends. The price starts to become a problem the farther you're trying to go though. The farther the distance, the less willing the drivers are to use the meter, opting instead to charge a flat rate. You can haggle a little bit, but even best case scenario you can expect to pay a few times more than you would with other choices. Plus, at least going through Bangkok, drivers expect you to pay any tolls...so the flat 500 you agreed on to get across town can easily climb to 700 or so before you know it.
Taxis; they'll definitely get the job done in a pinch, but are rarely going to be my first choice. Especially if I'm not in Bangkok.
For the uninitiated, tuk tuks are a staple of Southeast Asian transportation...and Thailand is no exception. A tuk tuk is essentially what happens when a motorbike and a taxi get together and have a little automobaby.
As you can see, they don't offer a whole lot of space. On a good day you can cram maybe 3 people back there, so they're not always the best option when traveling in a larger group. They're typically a bit cheaper than a taxi would be, but for the most part tuk tuks don't have meters, so the fare is mostly dependent on your haggling skills. The biggest problem is that if you're in a big tourist area, the drivers are used to tourists who, out of some combination of ignorance and apathy, are willing to overpay for a ride somewhere. It can sometimes take a minute get the driver down to a reasonable price. Luckily, as with the taxis, tuk tuks are in no short supply, and there's almost always a driver willing to accept your price.
In theory tuk tuks are really cool, but the actual use of them leaves a bit to be desired. Drivers are typically pretty knowledgeable of shortcuts and tend to be decent at avoiding traffic. Sometimes though, the traffic is unavoidable so you end up just sitting there breathing in all the traffic fumes. So yeah, that's really not ideal.
Really my favorite thing about tuk tuks is that the designs vary from city to city. Most look pretty similar to the picture up there. Some areas have more or less seating room, or some small cosmetic difference unique to the area. In Ayutthaya, they have benches in the back that seat up to 6 or so and weird fronts that look kinda like samurai masks. In Cambodia, they stick closer to the rickshaw idea; with more of 'motorbike pulling a cart' design. This provides more seating room than your standard Thai tuk tuk plus gives the Cambodian models a kickass turn radius. Sorry Thailand, but I think Cambodia has you beat on the tuk tuk front.
We are now crossing the threshold into my preferred transportation options. I've been on a few flights since I've been here and have been pretty pleased. Obviously, planes are going to get you to your destination faster than just about any other option. Planes can really make a big difference, especially on a shorter weekend trip. Don't think it takes more than a few hours to get anywhere domestically, and since I fly in and out of Bangkok, flights rarely take longer than an hour.
And, although they still tend to cost a bit more than most of the other options, the tickets really aren't terribly expensive. Most of the domestic airlines have really solid promotional deals every so often, so finding a ticket at a decent price is not too difficult. There's also the considerable perk of being able to purchase the ticket online. It's way handier than having to go to a station (as you do with the buses and trains) to buy your tickets.
Air travel also wins the award for 'commitment to schedule'. I've never had to deal with any delays, and all of my flights have arrived either right on time or even a bit early. For some reason Air Asia always boards way later than the scheduled time...but somehow they're always right on with the arrival time, so it works out. Also, Nok Air's planes look like birds which is fun I guess?
Songthaews (pronunced song-taow) are always a solid choice. Most importantly, they rank among the cheapest of all the options. Here in Chon Buri, the songthaews follow a set route that go down to the beach at Ban Saen and back for only 10baht.
Some places have songthaews that don't run set routes, and those tend to cost a little bit more...but generally nothing unreasonable. You can also hire the driver for a few hours. Our first trip to Khao Yai we hired a songthaew driver/tour guide who drove us all around the park, led us on a few hikes, and waited for us while we were off exploring the waterfalls and whatnot. A few other tourists joined up with us after our first hike and chipped in which helped defer the cost of what was already a pretty inexpensive personal chauffeur.
Some areas, Chiang Mai for example, have songthaews operating like large tuk tuks which, to me, seems inefficient. But even then, they're still cost effective, get you where you need to be, and always seem to be available when needed.
For the most part, Thailand's bus game is on point. While I'm stuck with a van every time I want to leave Amata, 9 times out of 10 the bus is my first choice for getting back. If I'm really being honest, there are only a few subtle differences between the vans and buses, but damn if they don't make a world of difference. The most important thing is the leg room. The buses actually have some room for bag storage so you're not stuck with your bag on your lap the whole ride, plus the seats recline so you can at kinda stretch out a little bit.
The other significant difference is the scheduling. For the buses going out of Bangkok at least, there's a set daily schedule that they follow pretty closely. They take the opposite approach that the airlines take. The bus almost always leaves on time, but you're never quite sure how long the driver's going to take to get there. Coming from the same station I've had drivers from all over the spectrum, including a few acting like they're auditioning for a promotion to the job of meth-addled van driver and one guy who drives just a hair faster than 'leisurely stroll' pace. There's a few normal ones as well, but they're not as exciting to talk about. Neither are buses now that I think about it...let's move on.
Alright! Boats are always a good time, right? Actually, as it turns out, when you're on a boat for the sole purpose of being ferried to one island to another, the answer is a resounding "Eh, I guess so" accompanied with a halfhearted shrug. Mostly it's the excitement of heading to a beautiful island that accompanies the average boat ride that puts boats so high up on my list.
To be fair, a lot also depends on where you're heading to. The ferry ride to Koh Samet is pretty boring, and the boats themselves aren't particularly comfortable. The ride down to Koh Tao was actually fairly exciting. There were a couple really nice views as we were both leaving and coming into port. There were also a bunch of flying fish living in the area which we spotted gliding away from the path of the catamaran.
There are also happen to be several non-ferry boat options floating around (pun intended) as well. Down in Krabi we took an island boat tour which was incredible. The boat made something like 6 stops at various cliff diving, snorkeling, and swimming spots throughout the day. Free drinks, snacks, and a delicious dinner were all included in the price and everybody on the tour with us was super friendly. Plus that night we got to swim with bio-luminescent plankton which was surreally (surreal + really = surreally) awesome.
If you know what you're doing, trains can be your best friend when traveling through Thailand. If you don't, or just happen to be super unlucky when you're buying your tickets, the train can be your worst nightmare (assuming you're able to fall asleep). I'll make some points to support these claims, but, if you're pressed for time, the following picture will serve as proof for my entire argument:
Alright, so we can end on a positive note, lets begin with the two worst parts of the trains. My biggest problem is a little thing called "3rd Class Seats". When you're only traveling a short distance, I'm sure that 3rd class is totally legit. When you're taking 13-14 hour train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok however, 3rd class is the worst decision you could ever make. Basically you're sharing a seat which would be uncomfortable to sleep in solo with another person, while two more people share an identical seat opposite you. To say it is uncomfortable would be a gross understatement. Thankfully, with really any amount of trip planning, it's pretty easy to buy a ticket before all the good seats have been sold.
The trains also tend to have a really big problem with adhering to their schedules. So far, in my experience, a train can be expected to both leave and arrive on schedule roughly 50% of the time. The other half of the time, the delay is usually fairly substantial. My train down to Krabi left about 1.5 hours after it was supposed to. When we were traveling to Chiang Rai, the train stopped several times throughout the morning and, at times, even started driving back the wrong direction a couple of times. Still have no idea why, but I do know that it set our arrival time back by several hours.
On the whole though the train experience is pretty amazing. With prior proper planning, you can secure yourself a prime 1st or 2nd class seat in a sleeper car. I cannot overstate how important a seat in a sleeper car is. 1st class is ok, but I actually prefer 2nd class. 1st class you share a little compartment with 3 other passengers, and while the beds are a little bit bigger, the seating isn't quite as comfortable. In 2nd class you get legit seats which convert into the lower bunks while the upper bunks are in a pull down storage compartment up above. Also the bunks in 2nd class are parallel with the track which makes sleeping much easier. The 1st class bunks are perpendicular so you go rolling around every time the train starts or stops. Plus 2nd class is, obviously, cheaper so, really, it's a win-win.
Oh, and the food too! Now don't get me wrong...the food isn't fantastic. But it is food! There are people walking through the train selling fruits and other snacks, drink vendors, and, usually, a legit diner car. Usually we buy snacks beforehand, but knowing that there's food available for purchase should I need it is always a reassuring thought.
When you have a ticket for a sleeper car, and the train sticks to the schedule, there's really nothing better for long distance traveling. It's really hard to beat going to sleep just outside of Bangkok on a Friday night and waking up in Chiang Mai on Saturday morning. It's kind of like sleeping in a moving hostel and that is awesome.
Transport via mopeds or 'motos', as they're called by those in the know, comes in one of two forms; driver and passenger. Generally speaking, I'm not a huge fan of the passenger aspect. Although the moto-taxis are a good, cheap way to get around short distances, it can also be a bit scary. Like the van drivers, the moto-taxi drivers are basically fearless. They speed around, weave in and out of traffic, and typically do whatever it takes to get you to your destination and off of their bike as quickly as possible. And, unlike the vans, which at least provide the illusion of safety, the moto-taxis don't always promote a strong feeling of confidence.
Renting a moto to drive around yourself, on the other hand, is a completely different story. They rarely cost more than 200-300baht per day, which is generally way less than you'd be paying to explore an area by hiring a tuk tuk or songthaew for a day. Also, unlike hiring a driver to take you around, your schedule is much more open when you're in charge of your own transport. Decide to spend more time than you planned at a really cool waterfall you found? No worries. Want to make a detour to check out what might be a really cool viewpoint? Go for it! In the mood for an impromptu mountaintop photoshoot? What's stopping you?
Another really solid thing about motos, and this may sound a bit obvious...is that you actually get to drive. When your only transportation options all depend on others driving you around, and you don't always trust said drivers' abilities, getting to drive yourself around for awhile is an extremely refreshing change of pace. When you're in a smaller city, or maybe national park, where traffic isn't a huge concern, renting a moto is absolutely the way to go. It may not be the coolest method of transportation, but damn if it isn't a ton of fun!