Transportation, Thai Style
With reasonably priced internal flights and reliable train and bus service, getting around Thailand can be efficient and straightforward. Taxis are often happy to travel distances of around 160 km (100 miles), and you can hire a car and driver for a fraction of what it would cost back home. But several quirkier modes of transport have true local color (though sometimes not much regard for safety).
The slim longtail boat gets its name from the huge V8 car engine that protrudes on an elongated pole from the back of the craft. Catch one of these brightly colored, 40-foot monsters to navigate the river in Bangkok for a bumpy, noisy, and exhilarating ride. When the going gets choppy, passengers huddle behind plastic sheeting. Garlands wrapped around the prow, dedicated to Mae Yanang, the goddess of travel, are also there for your protection.
In cities there are so many motorcycles skittering between cars it seems every resident must own one. And no wonder: in the gridlocked traffic they're often the only way to get anywhere on time. Consequently, people frequently abandon taxis or cars and hop on motorcycle taxis (called "motorcy"), the drivers of which are notorious for two things: shady dealings and scary driving. Yet it's not uncommon to see entire families piled helmetless on a single vehicle. Women passengers usually ride sidesaddle, with both hands clasped between their knees to preserve modesty—a balancing act of high skill and great faith.
The quaint samlor (literally meaning "three wheels") is a variation on a rickshaw: the driver pedals a three-wheeled bicycle, pulling an open carriage with room for two in back. It's a slow, quiet, and cheap way to travel short distances, and samlors are still common on the streets of provincial towns. Often, street vendors will attach the carriage to the front of the vehicle instead of the back and use it to display their wares.
Songthaews are converted pickup trucks with two benches in the back and a metal roof. Thais ride songthaews both within a town and between towns. They aren't cheaper than local buses, but they are more frequent and will sometimes drive slightly out of their way to drop you nearer your destination. Just stick out your hand as one passes, negotiate a price, and climb in back. Songthaews are often packed, and if all the seats are taken, Thais will just climb on the back and hang onto the railings. It's a bumpy ride on rural roads; for longer trips, you'll be more comfortable on the bus.
Although the tuk-tuk is practically Thailand's icon, it is in fact a Japanese import. This three-wheeled motorized taxi with open sides is a logical progression from the samlor. It's an atmospheric—that is, fume-filled, hot, and noisy—way to get around city streets, and a more pleasant ride on rural lanes, although you have to hunker down in the seat to actually see much, and you'll definitely feel every bump in the road. Tuk-tuks come in a variety of styles, including bullet-nosed models in Ayutthaya, elongated "hot rods" on the Eastern Gulf, and elevated versions nicknamed "Skylabs" in the northeast.
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