Tuk-Tuks are for Tourists: Secrets for Getting Around in Thailand

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Secrets for getting around Thailand is a guest post by Jessica from Ways of Wanderers 

getting around Thailand tuk tuks

When my partner, Brent, and I first arrived in Thailand, it seemed like we were having nothing but bad luck when it came to taking tuk-tuks.

The drivers were constantly trying to charge us outrageous prices, leading us off on unwanted detours, and attempting to short-change us at the end of the ride.

Brent was filling one of our Thai co-workers in on the latest of our disaster stories, and the explanation for our woes seemed quite simple to her: “Because tuk-tuks are for tourists.”

Don’t Travel in Thailand like a Tourist  

Once she pointed this out, it seemed obvious: I never see Thai people riding around in tuk-tuks.

In my experience, most businesses in Thailand will unabashedly charge foreigners more than they charge locals. Therefore, chances are, if you’re traveling like a foreign tourist, you’re probably getting charged like one too. If you want to get around Thailand on a budget, you need to learn how to travel like a Thai person, not a tourist.

My current home base in a small town in Thailand has been the perfect place to take a closer look at how Thai people travel. There are no methods of transport here that are in place solely to cater to tourists, because there are no tourists.

So how are people getting around in my Thailand town?

Scooters:

getting around Thailand
Beep Beep

Almost everyone owns a scooter. It’s therefore no surprise that, by far, the cheapest and easiest way to get around in any Thai city is to rent your own scooter.

For about $5 per day, a scooter rental gives you the freedom to go where you want, when you want. That said, not everyone is comfortable on a scooter, and traffic in some cities isn’t suited to newbies.

For those who don’t want to rent their own, scooter taxis are a good alternative. Scooter taxis are easily recognizable because the drivers typically wear a brightly coloured vest.

They are as quick as tuk-tuks, but in my experience, the drivers are less likely to overcharge. In fact, in smaller towns the drivers often charge a low flat rate to travel anywhere within the city.

Songthaews:

getting around Thailand songthaew
Songthaew

These look like open pick-ups trucks with parallel benches in the back. They run within cities like a local bus, or on short routes between nearby cities.

There’s no official “stop” for songthaews, so you just stand by the side of the road and flag one down as it passes. They’re usually quite colourful, and full of people, making it easy to see them coming up the street. Hop inside the back, and then pay the driver when you get off.

Typically, you’ll be charged a set fare to ride to anywhere along the songthaew’s route.

Meter Taxis:

If you’re carrying a lot of baggage, scooters and songthaews may not be practical options. In this case, I recommend meter taxis over tuk-tuks.

If you ask the driver to run the meter for your trip, you almost always end up paying less than if you try to haggle over a fare with a tuk-tuk driver.

Make Conversation

It doesn’t take a lot of effort to learn how to say “hello”, “thank you”, and “how are you?” in Thai, but it makes a world of difference in how you’re treated. (“Sawadee,” “Kop Kuhn,” “Sabadee mai?”- respectively)

If you show your driver that you speak a little Thai, you will seem less like a wide-eyed tourist who just got off the plane, ready to fall for anything. Trying to make some taxi conversation helps the driver see you as a person, rather than just another dumb foreigner.

The use of a few polite phrases in Thai almost always leads to a better price and a shorter route. For example, once during a meter taxi ride, our driver suggested that he take us to the nearest metro stop, because the rush hour traffic was going to make the ride to our destination unusually expensive.

He could easily have kept driving and not warned us, leaving us to pay the inflated fare. I can’t be sure, but I think he gave us a break because he was charmed by our broken attempts at Thai. A little Thai also goes a long way towards getting a warmer reception and more assistance at bus and train stations.

Learn to Love Slow, Unpredictable Transit

I’ve had to get used to the fact that it’s very difficult to make plans around transport between cities and provinces in Thailand. It’s not always possible to find bus and train timetables online, let alone book a seat in advance. Trains and buses are frequently very late, slow, and crowded.

Buying a ticket doesn’t mean that you won’t end up squatting in the aisle because all of the seats are taken. Getting around in Thailand became a lot easier for me once I stopped worrying about when I was going to get to my destination.

The craziness of the transport system becomes more manageable when you view it as an adventure, rather than a hassle. There’s something strangely magical about a long, slow ride on the rickety Thai railway, with the windows open to combat the sweaty heat, listening to the vendors calling out for passengers to buy food as they walk up and down the aisles.

When you stop taking transport seriously, you can start to enjoy the journey and have some fun figuring out the best ways to get around Thailand.

BIO: Jessica has been working/volunteering her way through Europe and Asia with her partner, Brent, since September 2011. The projects are varied: from gardening at a retreat center in Germany to teaching ESL in Thailand. Check out Ways of Wanderers  for her latest stories and travel advice.

15 thoughts on “Tuk-Tuks are for Tourists: Secrets for Getting Around in Thailand”

  1. This post was incredibly helpful! It’s really hard to keep track of which modes of transportation are tourist rip-offs and which ones are ok to use, as they seem to vary from country to country (and sometimes from city to city: rickshaws are a no-no in Beijing, but can be taken risk free in Xi’an, here in China). I always spend the first few days in a country just walking a lot (and maybe braving the buses) all the while observing the demographics of the people in other types of transportation… if the locals use it, I assume there must be a way to take it without it costing large sums of money! Obviously this will make our eventual transition to the Thai transportation system that much smoother!

    1. I’m glad you found it helpful,Steph! And I totally agree that, when you arrive in place, observing who is taking what for a few days is the best way to figure out how to get around. The tuk-tuks in Thailand totally threw me off because they’re hot and dirty, so you think they’d be cheap compared to the air-conditioned taxis! Yet, not so. The most budget-friendly methods of transport really do seem to vary from country to country.

  2. You are absolutely right Jessica, one of the joys of travelling is in experiencing ALL forms of transport, finding out what it’s really like. On our last trip to Bangkok we discovered that aircon taxis are about the same price as tuk tuks ( much cheaper if you can’t talk the tuk tuk jockeys round) without the traffic fumes. Tuk tuks are still great fun though, we were travelling with kids, they’d always want to take the tuk tuk option. Trains,8 hours for a 4 hour train journey, we paid for aircon, we got open carriages, but, guess what, no dramas, the kids loved it, so many new experiences. Next time we’ll get them on that night train to Chiang Mai, they’ll love that!

    1. I can see why your kids would enjoy tuk tuks, Alyson. They definitely have a novelty factor about them. Even if you pay a bit more, traveling by tuk tuk is sort of one of those experiences everyone should try once (plus it’s a fun opportunity to take a shot at haggling).

  3. Just be careful with scooters because they aren’t always covered in your travel insurance policy or have separate clauses about the type of license you need to have.

    1. Very true! For Australians we know that Cover-More offers scooter coverage for a really cheap price and its easy to add to your policy. So many people get caught out by this and end up in a lot of trouble!

  4. Hi Jessica,

    Love the name;)

    A friend and I are traveling to Thailand next year February and your article has been fantastic in educating me in more ways than just the transport!

    Good luck for the rest of your travels!

  5. I’m traveling around Thailand and much of Southeast Asia beginning later this year.. and very excited! I’m not afraid to go to a new country, to not know the language, to arrive alone, and to travel as a female. I think right now the only thing that I am afraid of is crowded buses. I get sick and panicky VERY quick on buses because of motion sickness or anxiety. Do you get like this? How do you cope? Last year I was on a very crowded city bus from Montezuma to Puntarenas in Costa Rica, it was a few hour journey and I didn’t get a seat. It was hot. I got nauseous and could barely stand. Luckily, a local noticed and offered me a seat. I was very grateful. I don’t expect that to happen always!

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