Visa and Transportation

Getting To Thailand

By Air

Thailand is centrally located in the heart of Southeast Asia and is served by over 50 international airlines from all major world capitals. Most international airlines fly to Bangkok’s Don Muang International Airport, though direct flights are also available to Penang, Hat Yai, and Chiang Mai. Travel times to Bangkok are 16-20 hours from San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle; 20-24 hours from Chicago; and 22-26 hours from New York via the West Coast.

Some airlines provide complimentary overnight accommodations in Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, or Hong Kong–a good way to break up the long and tiring journey. The following tips may save you time and money while you search for the perfect airline ticket.

International Airports In Thailand

Thailand currently has international airports in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket, and Hat Yai, and, according to Thailand’s Ministry of Transport, will open international airports in Chiang Rai and Sukothai by the end of 1996.

The Ministry of Transport has also approved flights to the airports at Chiang Rai, Sukothai, Chiang Mai, and Bangkok from destinations in China, including Jinghong in Yunnan Province, Kunming (the capital of Yunnan), Shenzhen, and the island of Hainan. These direct flights will allow you access to Thailand without having to backtrack to Hong Kong or Beijing–useful and money-saving routes.

Fares

All major airlines in North America conform to the price guidelines issued by the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Roundtrip advance-purchase weekday fares from the U.S. West Coast are currently US$1124 (low season) and US$1231 (high season). Roundtrip is US$1440 from New York.

Tickets purchased directly from the airlines cost more than tickets purchased from budget agencies and consolidators, but often carry fewer restrictions and cancellation penalties. Special promotional fares offered by the airlines may even match the discounters, such as roundtrips during the winter months priced US$880-940.

Thailand can be reached on dozens of airlines with a variety of tickets sold at all possible prices. Read the travel section of your Sunday newspaper for advertised bargains, then call airlines, student travel agencies, and discount wholesalers for their prices and ticket restrictions. Determined travelers can plan itineraries and discover obscure air routes by studying the Official Airline Guide at the library.

Ticket prices vary enormously depending on dozens of factors, including type of ticket, season, choice of airline, your flexibility, and experience of the travel agent. It’s confusing, but since airfare comprises a major portion of total travel expenses, no amount of time getting it right is wasted. The rule of thumb is that price and restrictions are inversely related; the cheaper the ticket the more hassles such as penalties, odd departure hours, layovers, and risk of last-minute cancellations.

First Class and Business Tickets: First class (coded F) and business class (coded J) are designed for travelers who need maximum flexibility and comfort, and are willing to pay the price.

Economy Tickets: Economy class tickets (coded Y) are cheaper than first and business classes, plus they often lack the advance-purchase requirements and cancellation charges.

By Air

Bangkok International Airport is usually a straight through affair, although the clustering of flight arrivals can mean lengthy delays to clear immigration for non-Thailand passport holders.

New channels for various passport and visa categories, however, are changing this. But usually there is sufficient time lapse in clearing the counter to ensure baggage is waiting for collection on carousels an escalator ride down from the checkpoint.

Don Muang airport, as it’s known locally, began life in the 1920s as a military airfield. Civil flights now share the military zone, which comes complete with a golf course between landing strips.

The airport has been almost continually upgraded in the decades since and now hosts two large, modern international passenger terminals and a domestic terminal within the large compound running alongside on of Bangkok’s busiest thoroughfares, Vibhavadi Rangsit Road, a main artery to the north and north-east of Thailand.

Like all busy public areas anywhere in the world, the facility is a magnet for unscrupulous characters. Be sure to keep your eye on bags and valuables at all times.

Upper floors of the international terminals serve departing passengers with arrivals channeled onto the ground floor.

Business travellers are well catered to within the facility. Restaurants, shops and services, including sleeping berths, internet and email access, phone cards and city maps, are available with signage in English and Thai to incoming passengers on both sides of immigration.

But if you’re travelling with small children, you’ll find little in the way of support facilities. There are no nappy change areas, nursing lounges or play areas.

Baggage trolleys are free at the airport but can not be taken across the immigration barrier. Porter services and electric cars are available for those whose physical condition makes them necessary.

New Bangkok International Airport (Suvarnabhumi)

Heading Downtown

Once cleared of customs and immigration barriers, incoming passengers face a startling cacophony of voices and signs vying for their attention for transportation and hotel services.

First things first, though, with a visit to an ATM or currency exchange counter to cash up in the local baht currency. Currency exchange counters are in front of public barriers and ATMs are behind them. The latter support most international cards.

The airport is some 25 kilometres from the city centre. Although adjacent to a railway station, train services do not support airport transfers; schedules are irregular and there is no facility to store luggage.

Coaches and taxis are the most viable vehicles for downtown transfers. Dedicated airport coaches run several downtown routes charging minimal fares. Alternatively, public taxi services offer metered fares to destinations throughout Greater Bangkok.

Helicopter transfers are available to and from the Shangri-La Hotel in Bangkok for a mere US$200 one way.

Those travelling further afield can hire limousines or self drive hire cars from counters outside of the customs gate.

Limousine services cost between 500 baht and 650 baht, depending on the type of vehicle. Most are late models in good condition.

A long-standing monopoly means Avis is the only hire company allowed a counter in the airport, and it is located in Terminal 2. But other car hire firms will deliver and collect vehicles. If travelling with youngsters, Budget is the only company to offer infant seats.

Travellers are advised to take taxis only from the public taxi counter and to refuse to take a taxi if the driver won’t switch on the meter. There have been several assaults, some of which have lead to deaths, of visitors who have taken illegal taxis either within the airport compound or immediately outside the airport.

As well as the metered fare, there is a 50 baht airport surcharge, but an all up fare should never be more than 300 baht. Try and have the change in your pocket.

You will also be expected as they arise to pay tollway and expressway charges, each of around 40 baht per toll gate, so be ready with some small notes to hand the driver as your approach.

Those with more time should consider the excellent Thonburi Bus Service operating air-conditioned buses along four different routes through central Bangkok, passing most major hotels.

The coaches run at 15-minute intervals from 4.30am to 12.30am for a flat 70 baht fare. The trip can take from 90 minutes during peak traffic periods to 45 minutes at less dense times. Boarding areas are well sign posted from with and outside all terminals. Staff on hand can advise which coach passes what hotels and offices.

Coach transfers are also available for those transferring immediately to domestic flights from the domestic terminal, around a kilometre south.

Outward Bound

Nearby accommodation is available for those connecting with early morning or late night flights.

The most convenient is the Amari Airport Hotel, located on the other side of Vibhavadi Rangsit Road to Terminal 1 but connected by elevator and enclosed, air-conditioned walkway (unlike the adjacent railway station).

The Amari also offers day rates and free coach transfers to its downtown properties.

Flight departures tend to be clustered around the same times, just like arrivals. Time your arrival at the airport to check in two hours ahead of your flight to avoid long and frustrating queues.

Check-in counters are behind security barriers and check in luggage will be x-rayed and strapped on entry.

Once checked in, proceed with boarding pass and passport to purchase your departure tax, 500 baht for all passengers. This can be paid for at vending machines or kiosks immediately before entering the immigration area.

Domestic departure tax is 60 baht and is collected at check-in in the domestic terminal.

Currency exchange counters are available at booths behind the immigration barrier, adjacent to duty free outlets. On-line facilities are also available.

Some departure lounges are some distance from the entrance to the departure hall and will usually involve passing through security check points, at which hand luggage will be screened and boarding pass checked.

We hope your Bangkok International Airport experience is pleasurable.

Overland From Malaysia

There are no direct trains between Thailand and Malaysia. On the west coast, you must get off the Kereta Api Tanah Melayu (KTM) train at the border and transfer to a train operated by the State Railway of Thailand (SRT). On the east coast of peninsular Malaysia, take a bus or taxi from Kota Baru to the border and then continue by bus or train to Hat Yai.

Buses and share taxis operate between Penang and Hat Yai–probably the easiest way to get from Malaysia to Thailand.

Bus

Buses and taxis can be taken from the west or east coasts of peninsular Malaysia to destinations within Thailand.

West Coast: Crossing the Thai border by public bus from the west coast can be tricky. Buses on the main highway terminate at Changlun, a small and isolated Malaysian town some 20 km from the border. From Changlun, you must hitchhike the distance to Sadao in southern Thailand–not an easy task.

Travelers going overland can also take a bus or train to Padang Besar, where buses and taxis continue to Hat Yai. You’ll need to walk over the railway bridge into Thailand, ignore the unofficial taxis and motorcycle taxis at the end of the span, and continue walking until you reach the ‘official’ taxis a few hundred meters beyond the end of the bridge. Official taxis carry a posted government permit near the meter. These taxis will take you to Hat Yai with a brief stop for border formalities at Thai immigration.

Problems with land connections via Changlun/Sadao and Padang Besar make direct buses a good idea for most travelers. Direct buses can be booked through travel agents in Penang or picked up at terminals in Penang, Butterworth, and Hat Yai.

East Coast: Public transport on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia is fairly straightforward. Bus 29 departs each hour on the hour from the main bus terminal in Kota Baru and 20 minutes later reaches the Malaysian border town of Rantau Panjang. You then walk across, conduct border formalities with Thai immigration, and catch a tuk tuk for B10 to the train or bus station in Sungai Golok.

Taxi

Shared taxis are fast, comfortable, and cheap; you won’t get stranded at the border waiting for buses or trains. Share taxis–usually a lumbering old Mercedes or antiquated Chevy–wait in Penang at the waterfront taxi stand and in Georgetown downstairs from the bus terminal. Travel agents in Penang can book share taxis, and budget hotels in Penang will arrange pickup directly from your hotel.

Share taxis also leave from the central taxi stand in Kota Baru and reach the border in about 20 minutes. You then walk across to Thai immigration and catch a tuk tuk into beautiful downtown Sungai Golok.

Trains

Ordinary trains do not run between Malaysia and Thailand. Diesels from Butterworth terminate at the border town of Padang Besar, from where you can catch the train to Hat Yai.

An express train departs Singapore every morning and arrives in Kuala Lumpur by nightfall. Visitors may overnight in the Malaysian capital or continue north by night train to Butterworth, the terminus for Penang.

The International Express departs Butterworth the following day at 1340 and terminates at the Thai border a few hours later. A Thai train meets this train and takes passengers north to Hat Yai (1640 arrival) and Bangkok (0835 arrival the next day).

The express train connection, however, rarely works. Express trains coming from Malaysia are often late, and Thai trains won’t wait for the late trains. The upshot is confusion. To minimize problems, check schedules in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and take your chances with a train departure from Butterworth, not Kuala Lumpur.

The express train is limited to first and second classes and is somewhat expensive because of supplemental charges for a/c, superior classes, and sleeping berths. Singapore to Bangkok costs US$100 in first-class coach with sleeper and takes 41 hours, including a 10-hour layover in Kuala Lumpur. The second-class fare is US$50 with sleeper and express surcharges.

While the 1,943-km journey from Singapore to Bangkok has romantic appeal–and is far cheaper than the Eastern & Oriental Express–it’s a long and exhausting journey best experienced in shorter segments.