Walking into a bus terminal as a Foreigner in Thailand you can assume you will leave with a purchased ticket, however, the ticket may not necessarily be the most convenient, comfortable or sane route to your destination. The following list has been tailored to increase your odds and/or help preserve your cool.
1. Red buses are the slowest. In Canada, we would refer to taking this sort of bus as taking The Milk Route, they’re scenic, they’re slow, and they’re cheap. If you have time on your hands, meaning, any random amount of hours because chances are, they differ slightly day to day, a red bus can be fun. Often they’re not aircon equipped, but the windows open and the fans overhead dance in their synchronized antiquity. Note: There are no rest stops along the way and no bathroom aboard. Be warned.
2. Speak slowly to attendants on the bus and in the terminal. It amazes me how many Foreigners become frustrated when Thais don’t understand their I’m-tense-so-I’m-going-to-blast-through-this-sentence-speak. People, it’s not exactly wise to speak to someone who MAY speak English as a second language like you’re talking to a friend while you’re pumped up on caffeine.
3. Speak simply. Express what you’re trying to say in the simplest terms possible. And please, why are you even thinking of using slang? Instead of saying, “I really want to go to Chiang Mai but I don’t know what bus is the cheapest right, and well, you have tickets going to Chiang Mai right?”, perhaps something like this would be more useful, “Do you have buses going to Chiang Mai?”, once confirmation is received, “I want the cheap bus please.”
4. Once you’ve spent some time in Thailand, meaning enough time to discern how Thais speak English (which on average, isn’t the same as a native English speaker will), speak to them they way you have heard English spoken, not what you think is correct, not even what you know is correct but what you suspect they will understand. This includes tone and inflection. Your M.O. is to be understood, not to be right. This is particularly important in areas off the typical tourist course. Cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai tend to be easier to navigate as their transportation stations suspect to assist tourists, hence hiring people with English language skills. Other areas, you may be dealing with someone who can speak a handful of simple words and only knows them in the way they were taught. Want to test this? Pay attention when Thais with limited English language skills ask you your name in English. The tone and inflection is always consistent, as is the timing / rests between words.
5. Don’t be attached to time. You’ll save yourself and anyone traveling with you a world of pain if you just let go. The bus is an hour late and took two hours longer to arrive at your destination? See it as opportunity to either get more rest, take in the scenery, read a book….make something up. You may have to.
6. Understand that not all routes are direct. And further understand that the attendant who sold you the ticket may not feel inclined to tell you so. You’ll get where you’re going, but often it’s a gamble as to when.
7. Be cognizant of when you have to exit the bus. Because you are on a bus to a specific location doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the last stop on the route, so pay attention. Attendants, from my experience have a habit of leaving this piece of information out when I’ve purchased a ticket. Being a Foreigner, it’s likely that the driver or the attendant on the bus (there are usually two people working on a bus) will specifically help you. However, this may not always be the case, and depending on the bus driver, get ready to jump off during a rolling stop. Not a full one. If you aren’t in the position to ask the destination of a bus and it’s not written on any sign in English, know that all major cities will have a proper bus station, not just a bus stop. For example, if you’re going to Mukdahan, and along the way the bus stops at what looks like small make-shift stations or small store fronts, they’re not for you. However, if you’re going to a small town like Sateuk, pay attention. One of them will be for you.
8. If the above mentioned is too much for you, there is Nakhonchai Air. In my personal experience, after crossing the country for weeks by various modes of transport, Nakhonchai Air’s clean, comfortable buses with reclining chairs, adjustable foot rests, blankets, music videos, movies (on occasion), meals, snacks and attendants – all reminiscent of an airline….Man.
Depending on the bus model, you may be seated in a chair that vibrates, massages your back and is equipped with its own stereo/surround sound hook-up – for what’s playing on the TVs, or for one of the available music channels. Your call.
In addition, your luggage is tagged and the attendants retrieve them for you. This means, you can fall asleep on the bus and not have to worry about someone lifting your bag.
Restrooms? Yes. One. And it’s clean.
The price? A 4.5 hour trip from Buriram to Bangkok currently costs 323 THB (10.32 USD). Frequent travelers can accumulate points for redemption.
My preference is to take the overnight bus to any destination to save on the cost of a hotel room. Normally I sleep well on the bus.
And yes people, Nakhonchai Air’s buses generally run on time.
As Nakhonchai Air is a private bus company, they only travel to selected cities, usually direct. You can check their routes here (in Thai language).
9. Lastly, don’t expect a taxi in your new location to transport you and your luggage to where you need to go. Major cities like Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Phuket will have taxis available, however smaller cities and towns probably won’t. They generally will have either tuk tuks, songtaos (trucks with two benches in the back), or motorcycle taxis available (or a mix). Sometimes they provide minivan service to certain destinations. It’s a hard call to determine if a city utilizes minivans and to what destination. In Buriram, for example, minivans are generally used to transfer people to the smaller towns and villages in the province. In Kanchanaburi, you can catch a minivan to Bangkok which is approximately two hours away. Once a friend and I were enroute to Kanchanaburi and had to transfer buses in Suphanburi. Upon arriving in Suphanburi, we were informed that all buses to Kanchanaburi had stopped for the day. As Kanchanaburi was between one and two hours away and it was nighttime, my friend offered to pay for a taxi. However there weren’t any and we had to spend the night in Suphanburi. We didn’t arrive in Kanchanaburi until approximately 16 hours later.
For Thailand hotel reviews, travel information and tips, check out Backpacking Thailand, my free Thailand resource.