This is the English version I wrote for my English speaking friends. For the German version click here.
Backpacking Thailand Part 1: Transportation
When in Thailand, you gotta drive with a tuk tuk! What an amazing experience I thought, driving through Phuket for New Years. At this point I have had a few Singha beers otherwise I probably would have missed seatbelts or an actual seat… but hey – there was a rail attached to the ceiling of the tuk tuk plus it was a disco one! We had the lights and the beats going and the warm summer air breezed into our faces as we drove from Kata Beach to Patong Beach. This was indeed an intense and reviving experience for me.
Besides the tuk tuks, minivans are the most common form of transportation to get around in Thailand. And they are great for meeting like-minded people (tourists who are scared the driver will never get them to the place they intended to go to).
While the vans will all be white or silver on the outside, you sometimes will get lucky enough to end up in a disco version here, too! You will know you scored when you recognize very detailed “MTVs pimp my ride”-ceiling decor and find out there are strobe lights inside what you thought were speakers. Minivans are usually between +10 and -10 degrees Celcius cold (50-14 degrees Fahrenheit that is) and you will not have to worry about buckling up in them either.
Whether you are in the disco-van or not, I highly recommend that you ALWAYS ask the driver to turn on some music! It will most likely be a CD full of taxi tracks for white people, as my Ozzie friends and me would call them. English popsongs with a great amount of base and very pitchy technobeats, close to the tone range only dogs and juveniles will be able to perceive. You will not have to ask the driver to turn up the music because he will already max it out for you right when he turns it on. I was convinced I would go deaf and blind after a ride on Koh Samui. That moment when you realize, you are not 19 anymore..
You should definitely plan in some extra time when traveling through Thailand. It’s not that asking a local how long a ride will take or how far away your point of interest is won’t get you an answer. You just need to keep in mind that the answer will be a rough, highly subjective interpretation. Driving from Phuket airport to Kata Beach was supposed to be a 45 minute ride, I got there 2.5 hours later. Another day we would ask how far it is to get to a Buddha statue and received the answer: „Very far! 5 kilometres!“ (3 miles that is. Jeeeez guys, get the metric system!)
Badly timed traffic lights are not the cause for arriving late all the time, though. There are literally no traffic lights. If you ever encounter one it is most likely just blinking orange for no apparent reason OR if it is actually a red light, you may judge for yourself whether to stop or go.
I was able to make out the top three reasons for arriving late in Thailand:
- absolutely mad scooter and car drivers as well as pedestrians and animals on the streets,
- any car ride will strictly be driven in second or fourth gear only,
- crazy stopovers.
Normal stopovers will be at a travel agency or backyard kitchen of some relatives of your taxi driver where you will be assorted into another van or convinced to book a hotel or eat something. Since you never know when you’re gonna get to where you wanna go, you might as well eat a bite in one of those travel agency-kitchen-storage-car cemetery-mini market-gas station-scooter rental-laundry service places. Here are some impressions of the multi-purpose stopovers I enjoyed:
Unusal but still possible are:
- stopovers at a souvenir shop, where the driver buys himself some socks and then a pair of new sneakers a few stores down the road .
- stopovers at abandoned places full of bus wracks, mud, trash and stray dogs where you are asked to drag your entire luggage from bus a (that you just got onto) into bus b. I was ready to protect my passport with my life and had my last group SMS ready to send on my phone. Just kidding, it was all fine.
- stopover at the drivers house because he needed a loo. He probably decided on number 2 because he sent his drunk dad to continue driving us in another car. I was a little worried but since the island only had one road I figured he would get us where we needed to go.
My favorite stopover though took place on Phuket after only 14 hours of traveling there from Koh Panghan (a 10 hour-trip in Thai time). Everyone in the minivan was already annoyed, because a passenger demanded to be taken to the airport and when we got there he changed his mind and now needed a place to stay. Finally the driver dropped him off at some sad “shithole” and we continued driving. After a short while we stopped again at a gas station where the driver told us that 3 more people would arrive shortly that had to fit in our minivan. Since there was only one spare seat we were all curious how he’d manage the situation.
To our suprise there were not 3 but 5 people awaiting to get into our car. But our driver seemed to have a plan! First of all he made everyone who was already in the car change seats. Astonishingly the extra seats he was hoping for after this game of musical chairs did not appear. A young couple was separated during this action and she was now yelling, trying to sit next to her boyfriend again but she was not allowed to. Now the driver put two people on the front seat where the airport guy sat before. Next he told everyone in the second row to make some room for a French guy. Left were now two Russian girls dressed in bikinis and hotpants, that were willing to sit on top of each other but there still was no room. Finally the driver knew what was best to be done: he placed the two girls in the row where the French guy was already one too many. The girlfriend now lost it all and the French guy was the happiest man on earth all squeezed in between four young girls.
Scooters in Thailand are both legendary and scary. You can rent them almost everywhere for almost no money. Noone’s going to ask you for a driver’s license and the helmet is not gonna fit you. You probably will decide to leave it off like everyone else and start your own little adventure driving on the left. I am frightened to drive a scooter and was therefor very pleased by the fact that I had spent 16 days in Thailand without being forced to hop on one, once. But, you never really know what’s next when you are in Thailand. Little did I know I was about to be scooter-taxied to a tattoo artist’s friend’s house when I entered his studio with a simple question the last day of my vacation. No helmet, no idea where the hell he was taking me. Not scary at all. Later that day I even tried to drive a scooter myself and smashed my knee tilting over with it in slow motion. That was shortly before I found myself on the back of a jet ski. Oh and I was given a puppy later that night. Good times… But I am losing track here.
Alright, last but not least here’s a little how-to get around in Thailand:
Wherever you are, walk down the road to a travel agency. I know I can only speak for the parts of Southern Thailand I visited but there was a travel agency everywhere! You will recognize them by the colorful signs showing scooters, boats or points of interest plus a second business modell in the same shop like a laundry service or a flip flop shop. You will be given a handwritten note stating that you paid whatever trip you booked plus the promise that someone will pick you up at a certain time on the day of your travel. I would almost jump like a kid everytime someone actually came and picked me up or dropped me of exactly where I needed to go.
So let’s say you are a cheap like me and willing to do the 14 hour-trip from Koh Panghan to Kata Beach on Phuket. You take your note from the travel agency and go to the port, where you exchange it for your fare ticket. You will receive a colored sticker for your shirt that will help the Thais sort you on and off ferries, busses and minivans until you reach your desired destination. And when you get there it is time to celebrate life! Congrats, you safely reached the beach of your dreams, far far away from home, in a land where you don’t know the language, after driving on six different forms of transportation.
Let me switch the irony off for a second, though. I have to admit that the Thai people are absolute pros when it comes to moving masses of tourists from a to b! You never know when, but you will 100% get to where you wanted to go. It may be a challenge for you to adjust to the simplicity and ease in Thailand but I found that my traveling experiences were important lessons regarding trust and reliability. Also it made me appreciate the luxury of our public transport and traffic in Germany.
Side note: I did drive a car once there, too. Check out the evidence. In case you are interested, I aged about ten years during that ride and lost half of my body weight in sweat.
In my next post on my trip on Thailand I will tell you more about the exact places I went.