When travelling in Thailand, buses can often be the most convenient way of getting between two particular destinations. The buses themselves vary in levels of comfort and service. The government transport company, Baw Khaw Saw (BKS), run many of the ordinary (rot thamada) and air-con (rot air) buses. The air-con buses tend to be blue with the ordinary buses orange coloured. Whilst a standard bus may be comfortable enough for a short 1 or 2 hour journey, if you are travelling long distances you may appreciate more comfort. On various routes there is the option of a VIP bus, but there are some important considerations to remember before booking any VIP bus service in Thailand.
Interior of Green Bus Company VIP Bus Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai and Mae Sai
Most of the VIP buses in Thailand are run by private operators 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.
The Bad & The Ugly
Unfortunately, there are also a number of VIP buses that should be avoided. These are aimed primarily at the tourist market, specifically budget travellers and backpackers. In Thailand, particularly Bangkok, guest-houses and tour companies will be happy to book your bus travel for you. They receive a commission and you have the convenience of a service which may also include pick-up from your accommodation rather than having to go to the bus station which is often inconveniently located on the outskirts of town. However, there are downsides to this arrangement.
Safety and Precautions
In some cases booking through an agent or guest-house can be fine, but this scenario does also lead to complaints from tourists. You may find that the shiny new VIP bus you were shown in the pictures looks nothing like the actual bus you take. With no official set price for the route, the person sat next to you could have paid half the price you have for the same journey. On arrival, you will probably find yourself deposited at an unofficial ‘bus stop’ far from the centre of town. There you will be met by a host of mini-vans or local songthaews who will take you into town. These will work on commission basis and will take you to certain guest-houses which might be what you want, but very often isn’t. With these particular bus operators it doesn’t necessarily matter that the bus isn’t full because they are working on kick-backs received from the guest-houses. Booking one of these buses is a false economy, but people continue to do it because it is the easy option.
There have also been regular reports over the years of items going missing from baggage stored on these types of buses. 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, i-pods etc. into bags which will be stored in the luggage hold.
How Do I Avoid Being Scammed?
Go to the bus terminal and buy the ticket yourself. If you are in Bangkok, do not buy your ticket from your guest house or that charming person in the tour agency in Khao San Road. Yes, I know they’ve got a Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT) sticker in their window, but unfortunately that doesn’t necessarily mean they can be trusted. There are obviously some good agents and some genuine staff at some guest-houses, but to make sure you don’t get ripped-off or scammed, go to the bus terminal and buy your ticket yourself. That advice also applies to other destinations outside of Bangkok, but the worst culprits appear to be in the Thai capital especially the popular backpacker areas such as Khao San Road and Banglamphu. It does involve a bit more effort on your part, but in the long run you will have a better travel experience, less hassle and will probably save money too.
With the ordinary buses in Thailand, you can often buy tickets right up until the time the bus is scheduled to leave. However, that is not always the case with VIP buses where there are a limited number of seats and a limited number of services. I would personally recommend buying your ticket for a VIP bus at least a day before you travel. On Thai public holidays and during the peak travel season, the earlier you can buy your VIP bus ticket the better. Tickets can be booked online or via telephone call centres, but these are only really an option if you, or somebody you are with, has good Thai language skills. The easiest option for most tourists will be to buy tickets in person at the bus terminal. This also has the advantage that you can actually see the buses you will be travelling on.
On Board Facilities
On VIP buses you can expect reclining seats, footrests, hostess service, toilet facilities and video screens. You will also notice you have been supplied with a blanket. I’ve seen some tourists in shorts and t-shirts laughing at the thought of a blanket. An hour into the journey, the laughs are gone and the blanket is out. Air-conditioning on Thai VIP buses seems to have two settings; very cold and freezing. 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 is also included in the price of your bus ticket.
Depending on which bus company you travel with and on which route, buses will vary in age and facilities. The photos at the top of this article show the modern Green Bus Company leather reclining seats on the Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai and Mae Sai routes. The photos below show the more dated interior of a VIP bus operated by Sombat Tour on the long distance Hua Hin to Chiang Mai route. Both buses were comfortable and the service was good. Naturally, some buses are more luxurious than others, but with any reputable VIP service you should get plenty of leg room and comfortable reclining seats. A hostess will normally greet you when you get on board and check your ticket. Large items of luggage go into the baggage hold underneath the bus and you will usually be given a receipt for this. 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 somewhere in the range of 20-36. The seat layout on some VIP buses will be 2 + 2 or it could be 2 + 1. If you are travelling by yourself, the single seat can be a good option. On VIP buses these are allocated seats just like an airplane and when booking at the bus terminal you will probably be shown the available seats on the computerised seating plan. You can book single or return tickets.
VIP bus operated by Sombat Tour between Hua Hin and Chiang Mai
The cost of tickets on VIP buses varies according to the operator and route. Example VIP one-way fares are shown below for The Transport Company. Other operators may charge lower or higher prices. Approximate journey times are shown in brackets:
Bangkok-Chiang Mai 806 Baht (10 hours)
Bangkok-Krabi 921 Baht (13 hours)
Bangkok-Ko Samui 759 Baht (15 hours including ferry crossing)
Bangkok-Phuket 974 (13 hours)
The Thai word for station or terminal is sathanee. Bus stations may be called sathanee rot bus or sathanee rot meh. The main Bangkok bus terminals are:
Mo Chit (Northern Bus Terminal): services to the north and north-east e.g. Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Nong Khai.
Sai Tai Taling Chan (Southern Bus Terminal): services to the west and south e.g. Kanchanaburi, Ko Samui, Krabi, Phuket.
Ekamai (Eastern Bus Terminal): services to the eastern seaboard e.g. Pattaya, Rayong, Trat, Ko Chang.
Please note that VIP buses don’t operate on all routes and may be restricted in some cases to overnight services. The above list is just a guide and there are always exceptions. For instance, some VIP buses from Bangkok to the south (e.g. Krabi) also run from Mo Chit, but generally speaking the main hub for southern Thailand is Sai Tai Taling Chan.
Tips & Advice
The air-con on a Thai bus can get very cold very quickly. When travelling on long-distance VIP buses I always wear long trousers with socks and comfortable shoes or trainers/sneakers. I wear short-sleeved shirts, but also take a light jacket too. Blankets are provided on VIP services. Videos or music may sometimes be played at the start of the journey. The video will often be in Thai but may have English subtitles. I would recommend taking your own music or entertainment on an i-pod or similar device. Earplugs are also useful and so is an eye-mask. Small pillows will be provided but a travel pillow can also provide extra comfort. Of the VIP buses I have used in Thailand, I would rate Nakon Chai Air (NCA) the best I have experienced. I have also had good experiences with Green Bus Company. I haven’t personally used The Transport Company but they do seem to have a decent reputation for their VIP bus services. These websites are in Thai but you can use Google Translate or similar for assistance if you need it.
Nakhonchai Air (their premium VIP service is labelled as First Class)
Green Bus Company
The Transport Company (THE)
Alternatives to the VIP Bus
VIP buses can be a good way to travel in Thailand, but it’s always worth considering the other options when they are available. Overnight train travel in a sleeper compartment is usually a similar price to the VIP bus and can be very comfortable. If you have fixed dates for your travel and can book far enough in advance, you may be able to get promotional flight fares for the same price as a VIP bus fare. Check the websites of Thai Airways, Air Asia and Nok Air for promotions and prices.