How to get around Thailand

We've received several requests for contact information for the driver and interpreter we employ to visit rural weaving groups in Thailand. Our answer is always “Sorry, no can do.” Here are 6 reasons why.

1. Buses and songthaews

Bus service in Thailand is extremely good. Buses are fast, cheap and go almost everywhere. But navigating one’s way through the thousands of available buses can be challenging. Reading place names in Thai script is the first hurdle. Alleson can read a bit of Thai and speaks more than that. She also understands how place names are organized and how to interpret addresses.

Even more confusing are the various types of buses and the number of bus stations in a given place. In a big city, there are often 3 bus stations – air-con, 2nd class and intra-provincial. But there are always exceptions: for example, our recent trip from Chiang Mai to Udon Thani -- It’s a 12-hour overnight journey so we chose to spend a bit more for tickets on a VIP bus with 24 seats rather than the usual 40+. However, while our friend was waiting to pick us up at the air-con bus station, we arrived at the 2nd class station. Alleson’s Thai got us a clarification of where we were and my essential cell phone allowed me to tell our friend where to find us.

BTW, a songthaew is a type of pickup truck with a full canopy and 2 bench seats that often has a designated route for intra-provincial travel.

2. Trains

We like train travel in Thailand. It's slower and more expensive than bus travel but it’s relaxing and less claustrophobic, especially for long trips. But it’s not as enjoyable or safe as it used to be. The older cars haven’t been kept up and most of the reserved seating fan cars are being replaced by hermetically sealed air-con ones that are more expensive and less romantic. More the issue, though, is they don’t reach most of the places we need to go.

3. Cars and Trucks

Sometimes we join our friend Pii Yai, rural development worker extraordinaire, in her bucket of a truck. Piled in the back are her sleeping bag, pop-up mosquito net and other basic tools for daily living as she spends most of her time visiting projects throughout NE Thailand. There’s also stuff she's gotten from one project to share with others; such as water-filters, fuel efficient stoves, plant cuttings, etc. We're grateful to her and her 15 year-old Mazda that keeps on trucking and we’re always happy to pay to fill her tank with bio-diesel.

4. Motorcycles

When bicycle travel waned here, scooters and small motorbikes (100-125 cc) became the standard for personal local transportation. We rent them when available, i.e., when we're in places where lots of other foreigners go. However, monster trucks and SUVs now crowd the road (and put their owners deep in debt) so riding on 2 wheels seems increasingly dangerous. Like most places, drinking and driving is a huge problem.

Nonetheless, put Alleson on a motorbike and she’s all smiles. When she lived here, she toured to every changwat (province) over the course of 8 years, putting 50,000 km. on her 250cc imported Honda. We use motorbikes just for daytrips, though.

I’ve learned to drive a scooter. I'm too much of a bicycle rider to get the hang of the different set-up for the brakes on the geared motorbikes! I can drive myself, but not the 2 of us, so I'm usually sitting behind Alleson, often carrying bags, baskets and other large objects in the typical Asian way!

5. Air travel

This year we flew directly to Chiang Mai after arriving in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, to avoid travelling into the city only to leave again the next day. It was a good decision but in general we prefer to keep our carbon footprint low by taking ground transportation. It also saves us a lot of money.

6. Walking

Of course, our most common form of transportation is walking. Like our other means of travel, it allows us to meet Thais face to face without the isolation of a private car or the insulation of an interpreter. Walking across town or riding a songthaew to an outlying village provides opportunities for chance meetings and serendipitous discoveries that enrich our experience and broaden our understanding.

In short, we’re not keeping our driver and translator to ourselves; rather, we ourselves are our drivers and interpreters.