Thailand bus journeys
Thailand, the Land of Smiles, has an excellent network of bus services. Buses in all shapes and sizes connect the big cities with the smallest villages.
The centre of the network is of course Bangkok, the country’s capital metropolis with around eight million inhabitants. Although the number of public transportation buses operated by the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (BMTA) in the capital is adequate, the heavy traffic during rush hours (which in Bangkok virtually means throughout the day) makes getting around by bus literally a long-lasting experience. Often just walking would get you to your destination sooner. The authorities have partially solved the problem of overcrowded streets by building a mass rapid transit system utilising commuter trains.
Coaches leave from Bangkok to the provinces from three main bus terminals in the west, north and east of the city. Fares are very low; the one-way fare on an airconditioned coach from Bangkok to Pattaya, a distance of some 95 miles (150 kilometres), is a mere 110 baht (₤2). A non-airconditioned bus is about half the price, but the added luxury is more than recommended for a trip in a country where the temperature ranges between warm and very hot.
There are three main traffic arteries running through the country. The first goes to the southeast, into the Eastern Seaboard, following the Sukhumvit road, passing the country’s most popular tourist resort of Pattaya, and all the way to the Cambodian border near the town of Trat. To the north lies the country’s second largest city, Chiang Mai, some 400 miles (640 kilometres) from Bangkok. On this route, the second artery, the bus companies face heavy competition from the railways. Just as coaches, there are numerous daily trains from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, including night trains with sleeping accommodation. Trains are cheaper, but also slower. The third and final main artery runs to the south, over the long-stretched peninsula to the town of Hat Yai and finally the Malaysian border.
Again there are various types of buses to choose from for long trips, ranging from luxurious (and still cheap) VIP-style airconditioned coaches with fully reclining seats (these buses have a layout of only 34 instead of the usual 50 seats) to non-airconditioned, uncomfortable carry-everything-you-have-including-your-chickens buses with five-abreast seating which are extremely cheap. Double-decker buses have been introduced on long-haul routes as well, offering 82 seats in a two-class layout (economy in the lower deck and VIP in the upper deck.)
The most important makes used are Thai Hino, Mercedes-Benz, Isuzu and Nissan, with Daewoo, Volvo and Scania having a much smaller market share. Most buses are assembled in Thailand of imported Completely Knocked Down (CKD) kits, including the chassis and engine. Complete buses are rarely imported as this incurs a very high tax and requires a special approval for each model type. Thonburi Automotive near Bangkok assembles Mercedes-Benz chassis from imported kits and manufactures bodies. They also maintain the Daewoo fleet of the BMTA. Isuzu also has an own plant. A Volvo chassis and body manufacturer is based in Korat, northeast of Bangkok. Scania, DAF and Nissan chassis are imported as Completely Built Up (CBU) units.
Mercedes-Benz is the market leader, with 34% of total sales. The yearly sales numbers of new buses are very low in relation to the total number of buses used in Thailand. This is due to a prosperous industry engaged in rebuilding buses using old rebuilt chassis, new or second-hand diesel engines and new bodies. Only a quarter of imported engines are new; most used diesel engines used by rebuilding factories originate in Japan. Many bus operators choose for the cheaper option of having old buses rebuilt instead of buying them new, well extending the average life span of 20 years of the original frame.
The key player in Thailand’s coach network is Bor Kor Sor, The Transport Company Limited, which was formed in July 1930 under the name Aerial Transport of Siam Company Limited to pioneer Thailand’s first commercial air links. It soon started to offer scheduled bus services as well. It became a state-controlled company in 1938 and was renamed Bor Kor Sor during the Second World War. In the forties and fifties, the company also operated a fleet of cargo ships. In the sixties, The Transport Company started talks with the numerous private bus companies throughout the country in an effort to set up regulations and collaborate for providing better passengers services. Operators were urged to organise themselves in limited partnerships, joint-venture companies or unions. In 1980, the Bus Operators Association was formed.
Being a state company, The Transport Company also operates services on non-profitable routes under the Public Service Obligation which private companies refuse to serve, often with an operating loss.
The Transport Company and its affiliates serve a network of more than 300 routes throughout the country with a fleet of 8,500 buses, of which about a thousand are The Transport Company’s.
A totally different type of bus, which can be found throughout the country, is the so-called baht-bus (songtaew in Thai). These are pick-up trucks with a covered rear area for passengers. The system is very simple. Hail them down on the street, jump into the back, sit down on a bench on either side and, when you reach your destination, press a bell to let the driver know you would like to get off. Baht-buses follow fixed routes through the city; a trip along such a route costs 10 baht (₤0.20). They can also be hired as taxis, for a price to be negotiated with the driver. Some people like them, others don’t, but fact is that they are a great means of transportation for getting around in a town. In Pattaya, for example, the municipality has recently introduced a new service run by Pattaya Beach Bus Co. Ltd., with three different routes in and around the city. Fares for these airconditioned buses are fixed at 35 baht (₤0.75). But until now they have proven to be very unsuccessful. Why? Because baht-buses are cheaper and more plentiful. The stream of baht-buses driving along the main roads seems endless. And who needs air-conditioning for a short trip anyway?
The infrastructure in Thailand is improving rapidly, thus shortening travel times as well. Ten years ago, a trip from Bangkok to Pattaya or vice versa could take up to six hours, especially on Friday evenings and Sunday afternoons as many Bangkok residents flee the crowded city for the weekend. The Sukhumvit road, then the only direct connection between these two places, used to be clogged up entirely. Driving (or rather, standing still) on this road was a nightmare. On top of that, the road passes through a number of towns and villages along the way. But things have dramatically changed since then. A large section of Sukhumvit now has an elevated part as well, where the upper section is a toll-road. And there is a complete new motorway from Bangkok to Pattaya, which runs a bit more to the east of Sukhumvit and does not pass through any town. The trip from Pattaya to Bangkok’s International Airport can now be done in two hours or less.
Safety is a bit of a concern here. Bus drivers make long hours, and the driving skill of Thais can certainly not be classified as among the best in the world. Obtaining a driving licence is very easy, and that also applies to bus drivers. They heavily rely on the main rule of the road in Thailand, which says “the bigger goes first.” They will pull out onto a busy crossroads and expect everyone else to stop for them. But the addition of three-lane motorways has certainly improved the situation considerably, now that buses can overtake slow lorries without endangering the rest of the traffic.
Another branch of the transportation industry which competes with long-haul coach services besides the railways is low-cost airlines. A number of carriers have started to operate on Thai domestic routes over the last years, apart from the flag carrier Thai Airways, which also has dropped its air fares considerably. Although the majority of people travelling home to the countryside from Bangkok cannot afford to pay even the lowest air fares of 499 baht (less than ₤10.00), these flights to Chiang Mai, Phuket, Hat Yai and other province capitals with airports do take a considerable amount of passengers away from bus services. Sometimes the choice between bus and airplane is easily made. The trip from Chiang Mai to Mae Hong Son for example, in the north of the country, takes six to eight hours over a mountainous, dangerous road, while the hop by plane is a mere thirty minutes.
Undoubtedly buses will keep playing an extremely important role in the daily life of Thais, especially in more remote areas in the northwest and northeast of the country. Rising fuel prices have increased operational costs and fares, but the lack of a good rail network throughout the country will guarantee that demand for bus and coach services remains high.