Recent years the cost of air travel in Thailand has decreased, bus is still the number one transportation for long distance trips. Today there are public buses the less expensive and many private companies offering buses with more comfort and better service. Most long distance buses are in very good condition while providing better server than they used to be. One of the reasons is it because the bus operators realize that they have to complete with low cost airlines.
As for the long distance buses, there are 4 classes which as 3rd class, 2nd class, 1st class and VIP. Most of the VIP buses in Thailand are run by private companies and the quality of service can vary quite markedly. Some companies such as Nakhon Chai Air, The Transport Company and Green Bus Company have very good reputations and I have used their VIP bus services myself on different occasions and been pleased with their service. These types of buses run by reputable companies are used by local Thai people as well as expats and well-informed travellers.
This post we will present you with information in many aspects related to long distance buses and we only choose to focus on long distance buses inbound/outbound for Northern Thailand provinces such as Chiang Rai and Chiang Rai.
Types of buses in Thailand
Two types of buses run in Thailand: Non-air-conditioned buses, and air-conditioned buses. The non-air-conditioned buses are therefore cheaper and slower. Air-conditioned buses are more comfortable and faster. These buses are run by the government as well as private companies. Among these 2 types we can also divide buses into 4 classes; 3rd class (non-air-conditioned, multi-stops), 2nd class (air-conditioned, multi-stops), 1st class (air-conditioned, one-stop) and VIP (air-conditioned, one-stop, fewer seats).
3rd Class buses:
Not available able for Bangkok-Chiang Rai route anymore.
These are slower and make more stops than first class and VIP, but are still perfectly adequate for long-distance travel. They always have air-conditioning. Most of the buses don’t have in-bus toilet but they will stop at many stations on the route to allow passengers to rest. Therefore they will take longer time to reach the destination.
Rate for Bangkok – Chiang Rai: 530 Baht (12 hours ride)
Similar to 1st Class bus, these buses travel long-distances, and are always air-conditioned. These buses have a toilet on board, with lots of leg room, seats that recline, foot rests, and an attendant that brings you snacks and water. They’re almost always worth the extra cost for long-haul trips.
Rate for Bangkok – Chiang Rai: 935 Baht (10 hours ride)
What are the difference between 1st Class and VIP?
Judging from exterior look, a 1st class and a VIP bus seems to be exactly the same. Sometimes the 1st class one look a lot more modern and elegant that the VIP one. There are 200 Baht price difference between the 2 classes. So what are the real difference? The below is the comparison.
- Normally 34 seats, 4 seats per row
- 4 employees on the bus (2 drivers, 1 bus attendant, 1 luggage boy)
- 2 sets of snack and drinks
- Travel pillow and blanket
- Toilet in bus
- 1 complimentary meal in stop spot, shared dinning area
- Sometimes coffee at the end of journey
- Cool wet towel at the end of journey
- 1 small water bottle
- Most case, shared in-bus TV (start to have private TV but quite rare for Bangkok – Chiang Rai route)
- 24 seats, 3 seat per row. There is a single seat on the left side
- 4 employees on the bus (2 drivers, 1 bus attendant, 1 luggage boy), sometimes no luggage boy
- 2 sets of snack and drinks.
- Travel pillow and blanket
- Toilet in bus
- 1 complimentary meal at stop spot, private dinning room, and more selection of food with buffet style (as usual taste depends on cooker’s mood)
- Always coffee at the end of journey
- Cool wet towel at the end of journey
- 1 small water bottle
- Private TV monitor (in new buses), otherwise shared in-bus TV
- In-bus service seems to be better that 1st Class
So the major difference between the two class is number of seats. In VIP bus, the fewer seats will allow you to have more room to allow your stretch your legs.
Once you get on the bus, a bus attendance (sometimes called hostess) will greet and check your ticket. If you have large bags, they will ask you to put them in the baggage hold underneath the bus and you will be given a slip for the holder. As soon as you arrive your destination, the bag boy will get the bags for you. Normally smaller bags can be stored under your feet or in the compartment above your head. The VIP bus could be single or double-decker and the number of seats is typically 24, while it is somewhere in the range of 32 to 36 for 1st class.
The seat layout on most VIP buses will be 2 + 1 which means 2-row seats on the right and 1 row seats on the left. If you are travelling by yourself, the single seat is the best option. For 1st class, the seat configuration is always 2 +2. When booking at the bus terminal you will see the available seats on the seating plan on the .
On VIP and first class buses you can expect reclining seats, footrests, hostess service, toilet facilities and video screens. A blanket will be supplied. On long distance trips you will be provided with complimentary snacks and drinks during the journey and about half-way in there will normally be a refreshment stop of 20-30 minutes. The hot meal you will be provided with at this stop free of charge as it is already included in the price of the bus ticket. Before the bus reach the the last terminal, they will server cold towel with hot tea or coffee.
Public Bus Terminals
There are 3 main inter-provincial bus terminals in Bangkok: Central station or Mo Chit, Southern station or Sai Tai and Eastern station or Ekamai. Popular destinations are often serviced by buses that run around the clock, though most typically run hourly from around 06:00 to between 18:00 and 20:00.
- Morchit Station (Sai Nue)
This station provide the starting point for the buses to the north Thailand and it is the largest bus station in the country. Popular destinations, such as Chiang Mai, are serviced by many private companies as well as government buses. Main building of new Morchit station was designed to have different wings servicing buses to different parts of the country. The building has 2 floors. The 1st floor has ticket booths for northern, central, eastern and a few southern destinations while the 2nd floor is entirely devoted to northeastern destinations. After purchasing a ticket, you’ll need to first locate the correct wing, and then the correct numbered bus parking space that aligns to the number on your ticket.
- New Southern Terminal (Sai Tai Mai Station)
This terminal serves all southern and western destinations from Bangkok. It’s located west of the river, is probably in the western part of the city on a major street Borommaratchachonnani Road. There is no sky train or sub way close by. The fastest way is to take taxi which cost around 130 baht from Khao San Road or 250 Baht from down town. Since the building of the bus station has been put into operation only less than 10 years, the building condition is very new and comfortable. The room is well air-conditioned, and there are electronic boards with departure time of buses displayed in English. It is the best terminal in terms of facilities and look and feel.
- Ekamai Terminal Station (Sai Tawan Ook or Eastern Route Terminal)
This terminal serves eastern destinations such as Pattaya, Ko Samet and Ko Chang. It’s located on Sukhumvit Road to the southeast of the city and is right next to Ekkamai BTS Station, making it the easiest of the three stations to reach.
There are fixed bus routes from Bangkok to the Eastern Seaboard and the Cambodian border. All buses are air-conditioned. You can buy tickets inside the bus terminal. There is no VIP bus in this station – only 2 categories available which are first class that provide a direct service without stops to the destination and the 2nd class which makes stops during the trip and does not use the highway.
There several bus operators that serve buses to Chiang Rai. The below are the most well-known ones.
Sombat Tour is a private air conditioned bus chartering company. Its main offices are located in Pradit Thammanu Road, Lat Phrao district of Bangkok. The company runs a large fleet of passenger buses to nearly every corner of Thailand, both north and south. Buses leave regularly from most main bus terminals throughout the country on a daily basis. Some of the positives point about Sombat Tour are, clean and good food at stop point, it has good service, it’s mandatory to 2 drivers in VIP bus and it usually improve their facilities both at station and in buses.
Recently it just purchased a large fleet of buses to replace the old ones. There are some negatives such as past few years it has increasing number of accident, sometimes the terminal are too crowded. In many cases, there is a shortage of bus especially during weekend, and it put addition old buses to the service. If you care for clean toilets and good food offered at the stop point, Sombat Tour is you choice as they stop at their private stop point.
Siam First Tour Co. Ltd was opened in 1978 and is one of the largest air-conditioned bus services between Bangkok and provinces in the north of Thailand along with Sombat Tour. The company provides and runs a large fleet of luxury buses that depart from Bangkok’s main bus terminals on a daily and hourly basis. Siam First is known to have the largest feet of newest buses. Most buses and new and clean, but nowadays Sombat Tour is catching up at this feature. One negative about Siam First is, thought it has low record of accident, it is known to many passengers that the drivers of this company drive the bus too fast.
Nakornchai Air or NCA is arguably The best land transport option in North Eastern Thailand or Isaan, and we agree on this claim. It has long distance route from Bangkok to Ubon Ratchatani, to Khon Kaen and many cities in Isaan. It has clean, well maintained, modern coaches with very good safety record.
The NCA terminal in Bangkok is conveniently located and they can also be boarded at the Mor Chit 2 bus terminal. The Bangkok NCA facilities are clean and well equipped to include phone/tablet charging facilities. The NCA website contain very comprehensive information about their buses, route and schedule which is the best website among bus industry.
As per media reports, NCA is planning to have wifi available in bus soon but no one really know when. Almost all of the newest NCA coaches to Isaan have private TV screens for each seat along with earphones which puts and end to the unwanted TV noise on inter provincial buses.
However, everything great about NCA we mentioned above is available for Bangkok – North Eastern Thailand. For Bangkok – Chiang Rai route NCA only serve 1st class only. There are some complaints about its narrow seats and not-so-new buses. At this moment we don’t recommend NCA from Bangkok – Chiang Rai yet. Hope everything will improve soon.
Transport Co., Ltd. (TCL)
Transport Co., Ltd is the state-owned bus company. It is known to Thais by the initials บขส (pronounced baw-kaw-saw), this 80-year-old company was formed by the government to ensure that citizens in even the most far-flung localities had access to the capital city, Bangkok. TCL buses are easily identified by the large golden coat of arms appliqued to each side of the bus. TCL buses dominate almost all the routes throughout Thailand.
Choosing: Trains or Buses?
For a long distance travel to cities that serve train stations like Chiang Mai, Lampang, Surat Thani, or Nong Khai, train is generally the best option as it provide the cheapest and safest mean of of travelling. The train seating is more spacious with large legroom. You can get up and walk up and down the train, sit in the dining car to eat and relax on your own bed if you’re on a sleeper car. Trains are definitely safer than buses. However, by travelling trains, you have to give up one of your most valuable assets during your travel – time.
Train speed in Thailand is very slow. For example, even the fastest train you can expect between 14-16 hours from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, while buses will take about 9 hours. Buses are generally faster than the trains but they do have more accidents and, depending on the class of bus can be very cramped.
For short trips (up to four-five hours) they are ok, though for anything longer, when available, train is a better option. If your destinations don’t have train station, getting a bus the whole way will be cheaper than getting train and bus combination. For example, to travel to Chiang Rai, it is best to take a bus directly from Bangkok, while it is a better choice train if you head to Chiang Mai.
Choosing: Buses or Airplanes?
Many people still have impression that airplane is expensive. In Thailand, don’t assume that the bus or train is always going to be the cheapest option. It is interesting that a flight can be cheaper than bus or train in many occasion and it is best the best option in terms of convenience and time.
Some low cost airline such as AirAsia, Thai Smile and Thai Lion Air offer promotion fare throughout the year. And if you know well in advance the dates you will travel, these promotional fares will actually make flying cheaper than taking the bus or train. This make travel by air is more affordable for most people.
There are plenty of low-cost airlines available in Thailand for example, AirAsia, Nok Air, Thai Smile and Thai Lion Air as follows.
- AirAsia: A Malaysia based airline company, Air Asia operate services from Bangkok’s Don Muang airport to various destinations throughout Thailand including popular Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. It has 4 daily flights from Bangkok to Chiang Rai during low season, and 5 during high season. The normal fare starts from 1,100 Baht. During promotional period, it might come to to 690 Baht.
- Nok Air: A budget airline operating out of Don Muang, flies to many destinations throughout Thailand in cluding Chiang Rai. It’s Thai Airways’s sister company that was operated to compete with Air Asia. So far it is competing Thai Airway itself. It has 3 daily flight from Bangkok’s Don Muang to Chiang Rai. The fare starts from 1400 Baht.
- Thai Lion Air: A relative newcomer, based in Indonesia, to the low-cost airline business in Thailand, Lion Air flies from Bangkok’s Don Muang airport to various destinations including Chiang Mai, and Chiang Rai. It has 3 daily flight from Bangkok to Chiang Rai with a normal fare starting from 1,100 Baht. During promotional period, it might come to to 590 to 690 Baht but not quite often as Air Asia.
- Bangkok Airways: An upper scale budget airline based in Bangkok, services from Bangkok Suvarnabhumi to many tourist destinations including Chiang Mai, Sukhothai, Krabi, Ko Samui, and Chiang Rai. It doesn’t call itself as low-cost airline, but it prefer to be called “Boutique Airline” which it actually is. With 2 daily flight from Bangkok to Chiang Rai, the fare starts from 2,000 Baht.
- Orient Thai: Another airline company from Indonesia. Because safety issue, many of its destinations have been removed from the schedule by air travel authorities. Now only has domestic flights between Bangkok Don Muang and Phuket. No flight to Chiang Rai as of now.
- Thai Smile Air: This is the 2nd Thai Airway’s sister airline. Relatively new to airline industry, cheaper than its sister – Nok Air , aiming to complete with Air Asia again after Nok Air fails to achieve the same objective. And once again it starts to complete with Thai Airways and Nok Air itself. It is operated from both Bangkok’s Don Muang airport and Suvarnabhumi Airport to various destinations. However, only from Suvarnabhumi Airport, it had a route to Chiang Rai. 2 daily flights with the starting fee of 1,100 Baht.
- Kan Airlines: Kan is a small little-known regional airline based in northern Thailand. It has flights from Chiang Mai to airports in nearby province in Northern Thailand including Nan, Pai, Mae Hong Son and Phitsanulok and a few destinations in North Eastern such as Khon Khaen and Ubon Ratchatani. There is no flight to Chiang Rai as of now but it plan to include in the future plan.
Remember they are a budget airline, which means you will receive budget services. You have to pay for all your extras: food, drinks and luggage. If you plan well, it can be very economical.
We recommend AirAsia because, according to media and reviews, its service quality is superior to others in the same category. Despite the recent tragic in one of AirAisia’s plane in early 2015, AirAsia is still considered to be very safe.
For example, if you choose to travel by VIP bus from Bangkok to Chiang Rai, it will cost 935 baht. At the same time, if you book Air Asia during non-promotion period, it will probably cost between 1350 – 1500 Baht (additional 330 Baht for 20 kg luggage). During promotional period, you will probably get a cheaper price.
For example, for Bangkok – Chiang Rai route it will cost 739 Baht for 1st class bus, and 935 for VIP. As shown in photo above, I booked AirAsia from Bangkok to Chiang Rai 3 weeks in advance and with with promotional period it costs only 1,086 Baht (without luggage) and it save almost 10 hours. Of course, you don’t get this special rate often but when it is available, just choose it over buses. Normal fare of Air Asia between Chiang Rai and Bangkok is between 1490 and 2000 Baht depending on the configuration of the booking (day, time, how soon to departure date, etc). Considering it saves 10 hours, this price is not bad at all.
Buses and safety issue
Bus is generally believed to be one of the safest modes of transport in developed countries. Road safety has been a major issue in Thailand for many years. Despite its large number of tourist arrivals, Thailand seems unable to improve its road safety record. In fact, several foreign embassies have already advised their citizens about the dangers of land travel in Thailand.
Riding motorbikes is consider the most dangerous travel activity in Thailand. More than 11,000 motorbike drivers or passengers die from road accidents annually, representing 70 percent of the country’s road fatalities. Bus accidents may have figured prominently in the past few months, but statistically-speaking, it’s comparatively low when compared to motorbikes [Ref].
Accident involving buses
According to Thailand’s Ministry of Interior, up to 26,000 people are killed in road accidents every year in Thailand, which puts the country in the 6th spot in terms of road casualties. Of those numbers, up to 80 per cent are motorcyclists or their passengers, followed by cars and truck, and buses come last. According to the study of Tim Pearce, Senior Researcher, International Division, Transport Research Laboratory UK, buses involved in road accidents each year represents only 5% of all accidents. The number of bus accident is low, but when it happens the fatality rate is high. Still buses are consider to be the safest means of automobile transportation in Thailand.
Accidents are bound to happen when the buses are poorly maintained and driven too fast by exhausted drivers. Here are the number of bus accidents that made a headline in national news.
- Year 2012: 18 major bus accidents
- Year 2013: 33 major bus accidents
- Year 2014: 20 major bus accidents
- Year 2015 up to July : 15 major bus accidents
Generally there are 3 factors that contribute to bus accident in Thailand.
- Human Factors: Such as drivers are not familiar with the bus or the route, lack of competency for driving that lead to improper use of gear and pumping brake too often leading to brake failure, speed too high, driver be in a hurry, bad temper or drunk driving.
- Vehicle Factors: Such as lack of proper bus maintenance, overcrowded bus made evacuation of passengers very difficult. In addition most materials inside the bus cabin are vulnerable in case of fire.
- Road Factors: steep grade and winding road, too many conflict points at signalized intersection where sight distances are restricted, lack of appropriate warning signs which is very common in Thailand.
Since there is no passenger factors contributing to bus accident, it seems there is little we do. In fact, based on statistic we know that road conditions and the way the bus operators do business have some impact on road safety. There are few tips that we can apply to get the safest route/bus we can in the next section.
How to choose the right buses to get the maximum safety.
Here we will present a few trips to get the maximum safety for your bus ride. It might not seem to make much difference in normal circumstances, but small good safety practice make a huge difference in the world. Here are a few tips that may make you feel relax when travelling with buses.
- Choose the the best bus operators. For route Bangkok – Chiang Rai, there are several bus operators available but we only recommend Sombat Tour and Siam First which we believe to be the 2 best in the route. Despite having bad record of at least 2 major accidents in past 2 years, Sombat Tour is still considered to be one of the safest bus to the north. Its service is far better than many operators in the business.Recently, it replaced old buses with new modern ones equipped with GPS, private TV monitor, and seat belt in all seats. Siam First also has the same standard and we also recommend. Nakornchai Air is considered to be the best bus operators in terms of service and facilities but it only serves old 1st class bus to Chiang Rai route. So we don’t recommend Nakornchai Air for this route, but if you are heading from Bangkok to North Eastern, it is the best operator to go for.Buses from Transport Co., Ltd or so called “Bo Kha Sor” are not recommended for any route unless there is no other option available. They have high records of accidents, the buses are old, and based on our past experience with this operator, the drivers seems to be less responsible among the three. It is very common to see a driver of Transport Co., Ltd drive 12 hours straight from Chiang Rai to Bangkok. Now the company is getting ISO9000, hope everything will improve soon.
- Choose the best bus. In the automotive world, people believe that the best is the safest. VIP buses are best among the bus classes in terms of vehicle, facilities and service. Here are why VIP is the safest among the 3 class.Firstly, Sombat Tour and Siam First enforce a policy that it is mandatory for a VIP bus to have 2 drivers. Each driver only drive 6 hours as the maximum. 1st class buses also enforce 2 driver policy but I experienced, during peak time or long weekend when there was shortage of drivers, one driver drove all the way from Bangkok to Chiang Rai. This will not happen in VIP. Secondly, VIP buses only contain 24 seats. In case of emergency, evacuation of passengers can be done more easily than those with 32 seats. Thirdly, VIP buses usually (but not always) have 4 personnel during the travel – 2 driver, one bus attendant and one bag boy. Why 4 employees on bus is better than 2? As per our experience, the bag boy don’t normally sleep during the ride because he has to find bags and accommodate passengers in each destination all the way. One way make him away is to have conversation with the driver. Since the driver has a company, it decrease change of doze driving. Lastly, it is believe that the operator put extra attention to VIP when it comes to maintenance because they have to keep the buses good condition in order to charge passenger in higher price.
- Avoid travelling during long holidays. Road accidents in Thailand shoot up during the two most popular holidays in the country: New Year and Songkran Festival (April). More than 600 people are killed on Thailand’s highways during these two festivities or an average mortality rate of 49 person per day. Because of the high rate of accidents during this period, the police are calling it the “Seven Dangerous Days” of the New Year [Ref]. It is best to avoid travelling during long holidays.
- Known what route is the safest. Luckily the road between Chiang Rai and Bangkok happens to be one of the safest routes in the country because Phahonyothin road (so call “Asia Road”) from Bangkok to Masai is 4 lane roads all the way. So if you start from Bangkok, heading to Chiang Rai through Nakorn Sawan, Kamphaeng Phet, Tak, Lampang before reaching Chiang Rai, you will ride on a 4-lane road all the way. A 4-lane road in Thailand mean there is no vehicle running in the opposite direction in the same road. It’s must be safer that 2-lane road. However, if you choose to go through Phitsanulok and Uttaradit you will ride on 2-lane road for at least 100 kms and you have to drive across mountainous area in Uttaradit and Lampang for at least 100 kms. This is where accident occur the most. Many buses drivers like to drive on this route because it reduce driving time for 2 hours. So to remember is Kamphaeng Phet route is safer than Phitsanulok route. The best way is to avoid riding with buses that go through Phitsanulok route. How do we know? The buses that go through Kamphaeng Phet route usually leave early – before 6:00 PM. Chiang Saen – Bangkok buses normally run on this route and these are the buses that we should take. These but normally leave early like 5:00 PM. The rule of thumb is the buses that leave earlier normally go through Kamphaeng Phet route or safer route.
Buses and Scams
Despite being very rare these days, there are 2 known types of bus scam. First the scamers are aimed primarily at the tourist market, specifically budget travellers and backpackers by selling over-price bus ticket to tourists or taking tourist to one of their buses. Many guest-houses and tour companies will offer bus booking service to their guests. Best case, they receive a commission and mark-up from pick-up service from your accommodation. Worst case they take the guest to one of their buses which has low quality.
Secondly, thieves on buses. This mostly happen to 2nd class buses of little known bus operators to very remote areas such as Isaan or Northern Thailand. In the past, many people have had things stolen from their bags on overnight bus trips. Although it is quite rare nowadays, There have also been regular reports over the years of items going missing from baggage in buses that depart from Khao San. No matter which bus you select, you should always keep your valuables with you either on your person or in a day bag which stays with you on the bus. Never put cash, valuables, passports, etc. into bags which will be stored in the luggage hold.
The best way to avoid these scams is to buy a ticket by yourself online of at the counters. Also only select national recognized bus operator such as Sombat Tour, Siam First, Nakornchai Air, Transport Co., Ltd. Don’t leave any valuable belonging on bus during bus break-time. There has never been report on thievery for one of these bus operators in past many years.
Making a reservation right
There are normally 3 channels to buy bus tickets – company counters (in bus terminal or in company branch), call center (including online service), and agents.
In normal days, you can often buy tickets right up until the time the bus is scheduled to leave. Meaning you can just go to the bus terminal and shop around the bus you want to ride – to ticket booths open from 05:00 to 20:00 hours (some booths open until 22:00 hours to sell the next day’s ticket). Buses normally leave every 30-45 mins from 05:00 to 20:00 hours. If it’s not a long holiday, you can almost always get the you get to your destination.
However, that is not always the case with VIP buses where there are a limited number of seats and a limited number of services. If you want to go for VIP class, buying a ticket for a VIP bus at least a day before you travel is highly recommend.
On Thai public holidays and during the peak travel season, the tickets will run out very quickly. So earlier you can buy your bus ticket the better. If you can, avoid travelling a long distance during holidays at all cost because you will have to use a lot of energy to fight your way through the crowd to your bus in the terminal. Also the chance of road accident is higher during holiday.
Believe it or not, now you can book a bus ticket online nowadays, tickets can be booked online such as buses from Transport Co., Ltd can be booked via thaiticketmajor.com and buses from Siam First can be booked via thairoute.com. However, since booking bus ticket online is still not mature enough, we don’t recommend it at this point as it only add a lot of complications into the process.
The most convenient way to book a bus ticket is via telephone call center because you don’t have to travel to the counter or the agent office. Most call center personnel don’t speak English, so you may have to get somebody who can speak Thai to help. If you don’t know any Thai friend, you can ask your hotel personal to help but you have to be specific what bus operator you want.
You can always take a chance by calling a bus call center yourself and see how it goes. The call center will ask 5-6 simple questions which include your current location, your destination, number of people who travel, date and time for travelling, name and telephone number. You might want to add more a request to sit near the window or on an aisle seat, or in the front or the back of the bus.
Once the reservation is done, there are two options you can pay for the ticket – 1) pay in advance via ATM or at a counter service (7-11 convenient store) and pick up ticket one hour before depart time at the terminal, 2) pay at the bus operator’s counter at least 1 day in advance. Most people choose the first option because they don’t have to come to a terminal twice. Another easy option for most tourists will be to buy tickets in person at the bus terminal or the closest bus operator’s counter in advance. This also has the advantage that you can actually see the buses you will be travelling on.
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