A complete guide to getting around cities in Thailand

thailand tuk tuk

As much as I love Thailand, I have to admit, getting around is not the easiest thing in the world and it’s where you’re most likely to be swindled. But it’s helpful to know what you’re getting into so you’re not blindsided when you get there.

Accept that you’re going to be price-gouged

Before I even go on, you need to just accept that you’re going to pay more for every ride in almost every city because you’re a tourist. Just accept it. Sometimes you’ll pay double or triple what the ride actually costs, but you have to accept it, or you’ll never get anywhere. Put it in perspective: you’re probably paying around $2-3 more than you should be. Try getting a cab in San Francisco to take you 45 minutes to the other end of the city for $8 and then come complain about getting ripped off in Thailand. Got it? Good.

Taxis

Bangkok traffic

Getting a taxi in Thailand is like a fun rite of passage. Unlike anywhere I’ve ever been, taxis are really picky about the fares they pick up. If they don’t feel like driving 30 minutes in the direction you’re going, they won’t even charge you more, they just won’t take you. So the process of finding one involves: making sure they’re willing to take you, agreeing on price, and figuring out how to get there.

Hailing a taxi

There are more taxis than any other cars on the road so you’ll have no trouble finding one. Taxis that are available have a red sign in Thai in the front passenger side window that means “free.” Many of them will stop and ask if you want a ride if they see you milling about on the side of the road. But in case they don’t, the way to flag down a taxi is by waving your hand palm down as if you’re telling a small child to come over.

If you’re at a major tourist attraction or popular nightlife spot, chances are you’ll be able to find rows of parked taxis waiting for fares. These taxis are 100% more likely to scam you. So you’re better off walking off the main roads and flagging down a fare on your own.

taxi driver

Negotiating the fare

In a pretend world of rules and regulations, taxi drivers are supposed to turn on the meter when you get in the car. They’ll start it at 35 baht which is the default rate for the first kilometer, and then it’ll go up depending on the distance. Even in a big city like Bangkok, you probably would never pay more than 100 baht for a ride within the city.

However, in practice, this only happened for us once. That’s because when you tell your driver where you want to go, they’ll quote you a price, usually somewhere in the 200-300 baht range. If you’re not happy with the price, you can just walk away and find another cab.

Only twice did we not negotiate a price up-front. The first time, the driver used the meter and we paid 60 baht. The second time, the driver did not use the meter and we were really freaked out that he was going to tell us it was 400-500 when we arrived, but he ended up charging 300.

Here’s the thing: I’m not trying to get into an argument with a cab driver in Thailand. If I’m already in the taxi, I’m just going to accept their terms, especially knowing that it’ll amount to a few dollars more. However, in reality, you should ask about the meter when you get in the cab. And you can exit the vehicle if they refuse to turn it on. I’m not crazy about that kind of confrontation when I’m at the mercy of another person, so you can try that and tell me how it goes.

Navigating to your destination

Finally got a taxi? Great! Now you have to find your own way to your destination. Cab drivers don’t know streets, addresses, or locations. This is especially true in Bangkok. In smaller cities, like Chiang Mai, you can get by without doing too much directing. So fire up that GPS and give them turn by turn directions. One of our cab drivers even hooked my phone up to the dashboard so he could follow Google’s turn-by-turn directions.

Some places, especially hotels and guest houses, offer Thai directions you can give your drivers. To be honest, that was also ineffective. The best thing is to just have a GPS connection and be able to guide them precisely.

Tipping

If you negotiated a fare, you really don’t have to tip. They’re already getting a ridiculous rate out of you. If someone actually used the meter, it’s nice to tip them to be thankful for their honesty. It’s at your discretion, depending on the length of the trip. But a tip of 20-50 baht would be reasonable for most journeys.

Tuk tuks and Motorbikes

tuk tuk

Another way to get around in cities are on tuk tuks and motorbikes. These can save you money, but if you’re not careful, you may also end up paying more. Based on taxi fares, you should have a good idea of what it costs to get around to different places. Just like taxis, these fares will be negotiated before you get on them.

There are other pros and cons to using these. For one, in really busy cities like Bangkok, these can weave in and out of traffic easier. On the other hand, giving a driver directions in a loud tuk tuk is a little more cumbersome. And do you really want to be in a go-kart with no seat belt speeding through the busy streets of Bangkok? That being said, despite all the insanity, I didn’t see a single accident the entire time I was there. And like go-karts, tuk tuks are really fun. So the choice is up to you.

In Chiang Mai, we were offered a ride to the airport for 120 baht, which cost 160 in a taxi. So we had a fun little ride, saved some money, and the sage old driver somehow knew to drop us off in front of the domestic departures without having to ask.

Motorbikes are another option if you’re traveling solo. You’ll be able to spot those drivers because they wear orange vests. In theory, those fares are supposed to be fixed, and I didn’t experience a motorbike myself, but if I had to guess… those drivers will try to shake you down, too.

Uber

Yes, Uber is a thing in Thailand. So you may be wondering, why go through all this hassle with the taxis when you can just call an Uber?

For one, time. Traffic can be very bad, and it may take up to 15-20 minutes for the driver to even get to you. While you’re waiting you’re going to have 600 cabs stop and ask you if you need a ride. If you’re hungry or you’re trying to get to a temple before sunset, you’re going to ask yourself, do I really need to save those 50 baht?

In theory, using the Uber app may save you from having to give your driver directions. But the first Uber we took called me immediately after we were matched to ask where we were. So unless you have a local SIM, you have to also consider the fact that the ride might have the added surcharge of long-distance phone calls while you try to direct someone who you can’t communicate with to where you are.

And like taxi drivers, Uber drivers will also find a way to squeeze an extra baht or two out of you. They do this by stopping while you’re in the car to pump gas, pick up food, or go to the bathroom. At first I was thinking, why would this guy pick up a fare if he had to use the bathroom? Then I realized they do it on purpose, because we pay for it anyway.

The Uber was still way cheaper, especially going to the airport. So if you don’t mind the wait, this is a great option for getting around.

Public Transportation

Every city has, at least, a bus system. In Bangkok, you’ll be able to easily recognize them because they look like your average city bus, only more colorfully painted. Many of these are not air conditioned, and if they are, you pay more. In smaller cities like Chiang Mai, the buses are red pick-up trucks with a covered bed you can sit inside. I hate buses. If you’re on a budget, this is a good option because it usually costs less than 10-20 baht.

In Bangkok, you can also take the Metro. The system is impeccably clean and efficient. You buy your tickets using cash at any machine at the station. Because the stations can get crowded, there are marked queue lines on the floor.

bangkok metro

How much you pay depends on how far you’re going. You’ll be shown a Metro map when you’re going to buy your ticket. You can switch it to English, so you don’t have to go crazy memorizing characters you don’t know. When you select your destination station, you’ll be given a specific fare. The fare is on a chip that you can scan to get into the platform. When you arrive at your destination, you deposit the chip into the machine to be let off the platform.

It’s amazing, and I recommend using it at least once. The train cars are roomy, comfortable, and air-conditioned. When the train reaches the last station everyone has to get off and the entire car is cleaned before passengers are allowed on, so it’s also spotless. And as nice as that sounds, you won’t be able to get everywhere on the Metro. In fact, you’ll be able to get to very few places, so start considering some of the other options before your trip.

Getting to and from the airport

All that being said, getting to and from the airport is its own wild beast. I’m sure it’s different in every city, so I’ll stick to the airports I flew in and out of: Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok (BKK), Chiang Mai International Airport (CNX), and Phuket International Airport (HKT).

Bangkok

Bangkok Airport
Suvarnabhumi Airport is gorgeous, by the way.

From Bangkok, you do have a variety of choices available to you. I arrived during rush hour, so it would have taken me exactly the same amount of time in a cab as it did by train, so I took the train and paid less than $2.

The airport is connect to city center by the Airport Rail Link. There are two trains: the City Line, which is blue and makes some stops so it takes a little longer, and the Express Line, which is red and takes you directly to Makkasan. The Express Line will get you there in about 15 minutes, and shows up on Google Maps as SRT-MAS. The City Line will get you there in less than 25 minutes, and is listed on Google as SRT-City. You’ll probably have to take the Metro the rest of the way to your destination.

If you’re taking a cab, you’ll follow the signs to the exit. Once you’re outside, the cabs are assigned on a number system. You line up to get a number from the electronic machines, and then you’re directed to the parking number where a cab will we waiting for you. The problem is the fares aren’t fixed and you have to haggle more from the airport than you do in the city.

Tolls and other fees

Assuming absolutely no traffic, a fair ride from the airport should cost 250-300 baht, plus an additional 50 baht airport fee and 70 baht in tolls that you are responsible for paying. But realistically, expect to pay somewhere between 400-600 for your ride, unless you stand your ground on the fares. Sometimes drivers coming from the city will negotiate a flat fee for you that includes tolls. You have to make sure to agree on that in advance. If not, the default assumption is that you will pay the toll.

Chiang Mai

Smaller cities somehow have a better system for getting people in and out of the airport than Bangkok. In Chiang Mai, you’re going to pay a flat fee of 150-160 baht to city center, because it’s only 15 minutes away. Someone with a clip board will ask where you’re going and assign you a driver right away. No haggling necessary. And because Chiang Mai is smaller, you don’t have to worry as much about the directions, though you may still need to assist.

Phuket

phuket

From Phuket International Airport, prepare to pay. Phuket is huge, and it’s a prime tourist location so a cab to and from the airport to Patong Beach is 800 baht (around $23). You can also take a mini-van for 180-200 baht. When we arrived, we were told the mini-van wasn’t an option. We’re not sure if that’s because they wanted to get us into a taxi or because the mini-vans are generally booked in advance.

Like Chiang Mai, there is a desk outside the airport terminal where you can book your transportation. They’ll give you a voucher and find you a driver. The ride was about an hour.

On the way back to the airport, we decided to take the mini-van. That took us two hours, because we were picking people up all over the island and cramming them into the bus. At some point, we all had to switch to a different bus because the company representative on board said she needed to go to the hospital. It was really bizarre and left us all wishing we had just taken a taxi.

To top it all off, when we arrived at the airport, the driver dropped us off at the international terminal by default. Those of us that needed to get to the domestic terminal had to wait another 15 minutes for a shuttle that would take us there.

In hindsight, I would just take a cab. Or never go back to Phuket, one of the two.