Sunday, December 16, 2007

Public transportation in Thailand

Being in Thailand with no personal transportation means we're at the mercy of Thailand's public transportation. We were expecting something similar to what we found in Africa, contorting bodies, sore butts, and close calls on the road. Were we ever wrong. Thailand's roads are in fantastic condition making bus rides much more comfortable. Trains run along major road routes providing a nice long distance alternative.

Train tickets come in numerous classes, from sleeping cabins to private air-con cabins to general-seating cars that shouting food vendors frequent with the craziest Thai snacks. With the exception of the snacks, it's similar to the European train system.

Buses have been our primary form of transportation. First class is a double-decker beast with air conditioning, free snakcs like juice and potato chips, and a free restaurant stop along the way.

There is typically a subtitled Thai movie on board; we were lucky enough to get their latest Muay Thai (Thai boxing) release (think old Japanese kung fu shows). Second class gets you air-con but no other specialties; we've had an occasional bus with karaoke music videos having Latin-lettered lyrics to sing along to. Finally, there is third class which is an open window bus; these typically don't travel long distances.

Once at the train or bus station, it's time to hire somebody to get you into town. Taxis are the most expensive option but they get good business due to foreigner's familiarity. Songthaews are a second option. Songthaews are trucks with benches placed in a covered truck bed.

They hold six to eight people depending on the cargo people are carrying or truck bed size. Sometimes, they act as taxis and can be chartered. Other times, they run a regular route through town. They come in many shapes and colors; in large towns where they are the taxi, they are all the same color to make them easy to spot.

Once in town, there are many options. Tuk-tuks are the most widespread and there is no better sight for a tuk-tuk driver than clueless and confused tourists. They are known for either way overcharging customers or undercharging customers but then taking them to all of their friends' shops until something is purchased and then getting to the desired location. Tuk-tuks look like covered motorcycles or scooters that have been modified to carry at least the driver and two more people. The classic tuk-tuk found in Bangkok and Chiang Mai has the driver in front with the passengers riding in seats behind him.

In the small town of new Sukhothai, tuk-tuks are inverse Bangkok style, with passengers sitting up front.

Finally, in Ao Nang, tuk-tuks are multi-purpose motorbikes with a benched side cart capable of carrying up to four people or carrying freight such as sacks of rice or fruit.

So, how do Thais get around? They use all the transportation described previously except they know the reasonable price for trips. Trucks are the most popular 4-wheeled personal vehicle and many homes have a car. It seems that scooters are the number one choice and they can do a lot more than us on the typical two-seater.

Thailand lets foreigners rent cars, scooters, and bicycles so personal transportation is available. To date, we've only dared to brave the streets as drivers of pedal bikes

but our confidence is growing for a scooter-for-rent!

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