Thailand has great transportation.
Songthaews and Tuk Tuks
Riding in songthaews and tuk tuks does seem odd at first, but you get accustom to it. The kids think riding in these forms of transportation is the greatest adventure. I feel safer in a tuk tuk with my kids because the driver has quite a bit more control, can maneuver better, and I have a great perspective to see what is happening at the driver’s seat. In a songthaew, I get more worried about the safety of my children. For the most part, songthaew drivers are pretty safe and drive at a safe speed, but occasionally you will have someone who likes to speed up and brake a lot so the kids get thrown here and there. The key is to teach them to hold on at all times because since you can’t see anything in front of you, you never know when the driver will brake hard.
In 2013, a ride in a songthaew anywhere in central Chiang Mai was 20 baht. When you stop a songthaew, you just tell the driver where you want to go. Most drivers understand the major sites in English, but if the driver doesn’t understand you, let him pass on and just wait for a driver who understands you. There are so many songthaews that drive around that you rarely have to wait long to get a ride from one. Once the driver understand where you want to go, jump in the back. If you wait, the driver will try and negotiate a price with you; if you just jump in, the driver thinks you are a local and you know what is going on, and it will only be 20 baht. If you try to get farther from the center, like the Chiang Mai zoo, the driver may charge you a little more, like 35 baht. It is only the difference of a bit of change so even if you get charged a little more to get somewhere, don’t sweat it; it isn’t very much money anyway!
Tuk tuks are my kid’s favorite!! They love the view of everything and the wind blowing in their faces. I don’t prefer this form of transport because when stopped in traffic, the tuk tuk is at the perfect height where all the exhaust from the other vehicles is looming, and it is just stinky–but the occasional cool breeze on a hot, humid day is quite lovely. Tuk tuks are always more expensive than a songthaew. Tuk tuks are more looked at a touristy thing to ride, therefore, the price is higher. If you are at a very touristy area and plan to take a tuk tuk, the price will probably be double, sometimes triple what the price would be in a less popular area. The driver knows that if you don’t like that price, someone else will soon come along and take that price. It is worth walking a few blocks away and picking up a tuk tuk away from the tourist area. Always negotiate on price! This is when it is handy to know the number system in Thai. I have noticed if I negotiate in Thai, that the price is always lower. Once you set on a price, that is what it is. If he is a good driver, and fun with the kids, I will definitely give him a tip. One thing to point out is that these tuk tuk drivers do this for a living and they have families they are trying to support–I try to get a good price, but not crazy cheap. I get annoyed with foreigners who try and get rides for dirt cheap and it is quite discouraging for the driver, especially when it is a slow day.
There is a variety of buses that run throughout Thailand. Thankfully we have chosen great bus companies that we trust to ride. We prefer to use the buses that locals use.
The two companies we use are The Green Bus (http://www.greenbusthailand.com/) and Sombat Tours (www.sombattour.com). These bus operators are quite professional, and I love how we are always riding with locals rather than the tourist crowd. On both buses, we always go with the VIP buses. The VIP buses are nicer and are a bit more spacious. With the Green Bus, since we go to a more remote city (Pua, Nan Province), they have a bus with 3 rows of VIP seating in the front, then the rest of the bus is 1st class. The difference is that the 3 rows of VIP seating have 2 seats on one side of the bus, then one seat on the other side. These seats are huge, comfy, and recline so far back that you are literally reclined in the lap of the person behind you (it is quite great for those overnight rides!!). We always try to get the first row because you have tons of leg room and nobody reclined in to your lap. The 1st class are smaller seats with two seats on both sides of the aisle. We have ridden 1st class and it is still nice, but definitely LOVE VIP. With these bus companies on the longer routes, you always get a water, a juice, and a little box of snacks (which my kids love), and you also get a voucher for a HOT meal at the half way point of the journey where you stop for about 20 minutes. FYI, whenever we take the Green Bus, the driver cranks up the air conditioning so it feels like an ice box!! I always wear pants, socks, and bring a sweater (they do provide a light blanket and head pillow), even when it is 90 degrees outside! The other thing I have noticed with these two companies is that when you are on an overnight bus, they turn off the lights and actually let people sleep. We once took a night bus to Bangkok on a different company (one of those neon, flashy buses) and they had Thai karaoke movies blaring all night long–the baby was not a fan!! For VIP buses, you want to get your tickets in advance. The earlier you buy the ticket, the better your seat is. If you don’t care what bus you are on, you can get a ticket last minute at the bus station; there are always empty seats unless it is a holiday or during the peak travel season. You could even try purchasing your tickets online or calling the call center for either Green Bus or Sombat Tour. We have called both and they were able to pass us along to someone who spoke pretty good English to help us with ticketing.
What to watch out for when taking a bus–Be careful when purchasing a ticket for a bus. We are over cautious so we ALWAYS go to the bus station where ever we are to purchase our bus tickets. I would be especially careful in the South and Bangkok when purchasing bus tickets from someone on the street, at your guesthouse, or travel agents, especially near backpacker spots like Khao San Road. There are many travel agencies, even those with Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT) stickers on their windows, that have schemes with bus operators targeting tourists. You may feel comfortable buying a ticket from a travel agency, but be cautious. We had some students on vacation at the beaches in the South; they bought bus tickets from a travel agency, and they had the most horrible time–the toilet didn’t work, the bus wasn’t new like the picture they were shown at the agency, the driver was scaring them with his driving, and once they arrived to their destination, they checked their luggage that was under the bus, and their well-hidden valuable were stolen, which included a passport. Always have your valuables on your person or your carry-on bag when taking a bus–also, keep your carry-on bag at your feet rather than in the rack above you; someone can easily swipe the bag from above you without you noticing (I learned that the hard way!!). Some guest houses or agencies may make their bus offer super appealing, like you will get picked up at your hotel, then taken to the bus station, etc, etc, but what they don’t tell you is that you will stop at a few other guest houses prior to pick up more people, and overall a lot of your time is wasted; it is easiest to get your own taxi, get dropped off at the bus station and get where you need to go on your own schedule. For the most part with kids, I try to steer away from the flashy, brightly colored, tourist buses. Tourist buses seem to be a lot louder and have a much wilder crowd that I just don’t want my kids to have to bare.