Several different types of buses ply the roads of Thailand. The cheapest and slowest are the ordinary government-run buses. For some destinations - smaller towns - these are your only choice. The faster, more comfortable, government-run 'tour buses' (rot thua or rot ae), usually with air conditioning, only run between certain major cities. If these are available to your destination, they are your very best choice since they don't cost that much more than the ordinary stop-in-every-town buses. The government bus company is called Baw Kaw Saw as an abbreviation for Borisat Khon Song - literally the Transportation Company. Every city and town in Thailand linked by bus transportation has a Baw Kaw Saw-designated terminal, even if it's just a patch of dirt by the side of the road.
Charter buses are available between Bangkok and major tourist destinations: Chiang Mai, Surat, Hat Yai, Pattaya and a few others. These are called 'tour' buses although there is no tour involved. To Chiang Mai, for example, there are several companies running buses out of Bangkok every day. These can be booked through most hotels or any travel agency. Fares may vary a little bit from company to company but usually not by more than a few Baht. However, fare differences between the government and private bus companies can be substantial. Using Surat Thani as an example, the state-run buses from the Southern Bus Terminals are 125 Baht for ordinary bus, 250 Baht air conditioned, while the private companies charge up to 300 Baht. On the other hand, air conditioned buses to Phuket are all the same price, 299 Baht (ordinary bus is 165 Baht).
As a result of passenger complaints concerning delayed or non-existent departures, poor baggage service, theft etc, all buses in Thailand are required to be licensed by Baw Kaw Saw, which now oversees all bus operations.
There are also private buses running between major destinations within the various regions, e.g. Nakhon Si Thammarat to Hat Yai in the south, and Chiang Mai to Sukhothai in the north. New companies are cropping up all the time. The numbers did seem to peak in the early '80s, but are now somewhat stabilized. On some routes they use minivans, e.g. Surat to Krabi and Tak to Mae Sot.
The tour buses are somewhat more comfortable than the state buses, if you don't mind narrow seats and a hair-raising ride. The trick the tour companies use to make their buses seem more comfortable is to make you think you're not on a bus, by turning up the air conditioning until your knees knock, handing out pillows and blankets and serving free soft drinks. On overnight journeys the buses usually stop somewhere en route and passengers are awakened to dismount the bus for a free meal of fried rice or rice soup. A few companies even treat you to a meal before a long overnighter. In general, food service seems to be getting better on the long overnight trips.
A new innovation are the 'VIP' buses that have fewer seats so that each seat reclines more - sometimes these are called 'sleepers'. For small-to-medium-sized people they are more comfortable, but if you're big you may find yourself squashed when the person in front of you leans back.
The main trouble with the tour buses is that statistically, they seem to meet with a lot of accidents. Head-on collisions with trucks, and turnovers as they round bad curves are probably due to the inexperience of the drivers on a particular route. This in turn is probably a result of the companies opening and folding so frequently and because they try hard to make good time - tickets are sold on a reputation for speed to Thais.
As fares are higher than the government-run buses, they attract a better-heeled clientele among the Thais, as well as foreign tourists. One result is that a tour bus loaded with money or the promise of money is a temptation for upcountry bandits. Hence tour buses occasionally get robbed by bands of thieves, but these incidents have become increasingly rare due to increased security in the provinces under the Prem and Chatichai administrations.
The most dangerous route now seems to be the road between Surat and Phuket, though this is more so because of the old drugged food/drink/cigarette trick than because of armed robbery. (See Precautions for details.) In an effort to prevent this menace, which began to increase rapidly during the early '80s, Thai police now board tour buses plying the southern roads at unannounced intervals, taking photos and videotapes of the passengers and asking for IDs. Reports on drugging are now on the decrease. Another dangerous area is in Yala Province between Yala and Betong on the Malaysian border, where the Communist Party of Malaysia insurgents and Thai Muslim separatists occasionally hijack public vehicles.
Large-scale robberies never occur on the ordinary buses, very rarely on the state-run air conditioned buses and rarely on the trains. The Southern train route is the most dangerous. Accidents are not unknown to happen on the state-run buses, so the train still comes out as the safest means of transport in Thailand.
Now that you've decided not to go to Thailand after all, let me point out that robberies and accidents are relatively infrequent (though more frequent than they should be) considering the number of buses taken daily. The odds are on your side. Travellers to Thailand should know the risk of tour bus travel against the apparent convenience, especially when there are alternatives. Some travellers really like the tour buses though, so the private companies will continue to do good business.
Keep an eye on your bags when riding buses - thievery by stealth is still the most popular form of robbery in Thailand (eminently preferable to the forceful variety in my opinion), though again the risks are not that great - just be aware. The place you are most likely to be 'touched' is on the crowded buses in Bangkok. Razor artists abound, particularly on the buses in the vicinity of the Hualamphong Railway Station. These dextrous thieves specialize in slashing your knapsack, shoulder bag or even your trousers' pockets with a sharp razor and slipping your valuables out unnoticed. Hold The your bag in front of you, under your attention, and carry money in a front shirt pocket, preferably (as the Thais do) maintaining a tactile and visual sensitivity to these areas if the bus is packed shoulder to shoulder. Seasoned travellers don't need this advice as the same precautions are useful all over the world - the trick is to be relaxed but aware, not tense.
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