Bus and Train Scams from Bangkok / Khao San Road
April 29, 2005
If you're traveling around Thailand there's a fairly good chance that you may at some point seek out ground transport (bus or train) from Bangkok to somewhere. Whichever form of transport you choose, be aware that a number of scams and or very inferior services are out there. If you're traveling by rail, you may have to deal with what we call the TAT Scam (Tourism Authority of Thailand), and if you're traveling by bus, we'll call it the VIP Scam.
TAT stands for the Tourism Authority of Thailand and they are a government agency.
What the Tourism Authority of Thailand does:
TAT promotes tourism in Thailand to both the domestic and international markets. They publish literature, books, magazines, etc. They attend travel fairs. They bring the amazing wonders of travel in Thailand to the world. They license travel agencies and travel guides.
What the Tourism Authority of Thailand does not do:
The TAT does not operate travel agencies. They do not sponsor tours. They do not sell tickets - not for the bus, not for the train, not for an airplane, not for a concert, a cabaret show, nothing. They don't sell anything! They do not have agents wandering around bus and train stations to assist travelers.
And there lies the scam. Hualumphong is Bangkok's main rail terminal and if you're going to take a train somewhere it's here you need to buy your ticket. So what happens is you arrive at the depot, looking like a tourist (does any tourist ever consider how their experience in Thailand might change for the better if they wore long pants and a collared shirt? But I digress...). You spot the ticket windows and start walking in that direction when you are intercepted by a pleasant individual possibly displaying what is a bogus ID card saying they are with the TAT. They'll ask you where you are going, inform you that the route is sold out but what good luck for you they have a TAT travel agency across the street that can take care of you. So you head across the street, see the TAT license and assume you've been told the truth - that this is a TAT travel agency. But what you don't know is that TAT doesn't operate any travel agencies, only licenses them with the criteria being little more than the agencies' ability to comply with a few bureaucratic requirements. Inside the agency, the pleasant people will sell you a bus ticket on a private "VIP" bus. And as most people who fall for this scam report, the VIP bus stands for Very Inferior Product, the trip was one hassle after another that would be a true comedy of errors if it wasn't all intentional and what kind of operation is this TAT running anyway?
So here's what you need to do. When you go to the train station to buy a ticket somewhere make sure you go straight to the ticket windows and ignore anybody that tries to prevent you from reaching those windows no matter what they may say. The only person that can tell you with any authority or veracity that a route is sold out is the person behind the window. If they have what you want, buy the ticket. If it really is sold out, then you need to buy a bus ticket. But you do not buy one across the street from one of these travel agencies. Rather, ignore the people that tried to intercept you in the first place and leave the train station by whatever means you arrived and go to the proper bus terminal (southern or northern) and buy your bus ticket there on a government bus.
And do ask yourself, how is it that these fraudsters wandering around the Hualumphong lobby know the ticket availability status of every train on every route for every day? Hmmmm... And why are they not dragging Thais over to the same agency you're being carted off to? Hmmmm...
As national tourism authorities go, TAT is a pretty good one. They've done a marvelous job promoting Thailand and are certainly one factor, though hardly the only factor, in Thailand's surge in foreign visitor arrivals all the while conveniently ignoring one certain aspect of Thailand that brings in quite a lot of these visitors. While it's true sometimes the people of TAT don't quite grasp just what exactly foreigners want or need, as a national promotional organization they are pretty good at what they do. But they aren't a travel agency or tour company. So don't be fooled.
The TAT website is at: http://www.tourismthailand.org/index.php. Though is often the case, for truly useful travel information you'll find dozens of better sites, but this will at least give you an idea of what they are about.
Thailand must be one of the easiest countries in Asia to travel around. Domestic flights reach about two dozen provinces all in about an hour, an excellent train service connects Bangkok with Chiang Mai in the north, Nong Khai and Ubon Ratchathani in the northeast, and to Surat Thani and to the Malaysian border and beyond in the south. And finally, there are government-contracted buses that reach literally every last corner of the country departing from three major bus terminals in Bangkok.
Still, travel agencies on Khao San Road (and Sukhumvit and elsewhere) do a brisk business selling tickets on private "VIP" (very impressionable passengers, very inferior product, etc) buses and minibuses to the more popular destinations such as Chiang Mai, Surat Thani (with boat connections to Samui and Pha-Ngan), Siem Reap in Cambodia, and more. And reports of problems with the Khao San Road-based transport are all too common events.
All of these operators are selling you tickets on unlicensed and therefore non-existent bus services which will allow you very little recourse in the event of a problem.
The southern route (Surat Thani/Pha-Ngan/Samui): You're off to Koh Pha-Ngan and the Full Moon Party. A big "VIP" bus is parked at the end of Khao San Road for all of you to board. You arrive ten hours later to be transferred to the ferry to the island. Upon arrival you are pushed off the bus for transport to the ferry, rush! rush!, rush! Before you can even get oriented and wipe the sleep from your eyes, the bus is gone and you're left standing with your bags - which might feel a little bit lighter now. Wait, didn't I have a camera in there? Where's my iPod? Where's my money belt? While you were sleeping, you were robbed. The incidents of theft on this route are legion. They happen every week and regular readers or travel discussion forums such as the Lonely Planet Thorntree read reports of theft on this route with alarming regularity. Usually it's a matter of someone rifling through the bags stowed in the luggage hold, though there have been cases where sleeping passengers were relieved of their valuables as well. If you're heading south, get yourself to the Southern Bus Terminal in Pinklao (on the opposite side of the river and not all that far from Khao San Road, really) and buy a ticket to wherever it is ou want to go. Robberies of this nature are almost unheard of on government buses and the service is better.
The northern route (Chiang Mai): Not as bad as the southern route or the Cambodia route, but still a crappy way to travel. Stuffed into a minibus, you and fifteen other similarly-minded tourists with similarly oversized backpacks are Chiang Mai bound. Mountains, villages, trekking await. But while you will make it to Chiang Mai, the minibus won't be dropping you off at some convenient location near Tha Phae Gate. That cheap price you paid (I have heard reports for bus tickets as low as 50 baht) is subsidized by Chiang Mai guesthouses and trekking agencies all of which do a marvelous job picking at your carcasses, yes, I know you're still alive but in their vulturous eyes you are dead meat and they're having a feast. You'll be forced into one of these guesthouses because the van never actually makes it to Chiang Mai, but stops well outside of the city forcing you to go with these touts. So whether you know it or not, when you buy your bus ticket you also buy your guesthouse and trek at the same time. So much for shopping around and exploring your options, huh? Are you aware that there are dozens of comfortable public buses departing every evening from Morchit Bus Terminal that will deposit you at dawn at Chiang Mai's Arcade bus station leaving you the option of sorting out where you want to stay and who you want to trek with? Do you question the quality of a guesthouse or trekking agency that has to resort to subsidizing transport to locate customers?
Thailand has an excellent inter-provincial public bus system. Use it. And if you don't, you might also want to ask yourself why is it that no Thais use these Khao San VIP buses? Could it be they know something the rest of us don't know?
The Siem Reap, Cambodia-bound tourist bus, AKA the "Scam Bus": Cheap and, well, maybe not so cheap. Prices at the moment start at around 300 baht for a ticket to Siem Reap, Cambodia, home to Angkor Wat and a few hundred other old temples. This seems like a cheap option for a lot of tourists but for many this 300 baht ends up as only a fraction of what you ultimately pay and the service, in respect to time and treatment (you are definitely not seen as human, but as a stupid piece of cargo to be ripped off as much as possible), is absolutely horrid. There are several ways this ticket is subsidized: First, you will be massively overcharge for your visa, with overcharges ranging anywhere from 200 to 600 baht ($5-$15). Second, kickbacks from the several restaurants you'll stop at along the way. Third, upon entering Cambodia you will be pressured into changing money, significants amounts of it, and at ridiculous rates. And fourth, you will be sold to a Siem Reap guesthouse for $7, and that's their money, not yours. To facilitate getting you into the guesthouse, what is normally an eight to ten-hour journey and easily completed by mid-afternoon, will be dragged out to fourteen to eighteen hours, resulting in arrival times on average of 10 pm to 2 am. Now imagine arriving at 2 in the morning? How likely are you to move to another guesthouse at this hour? At you can probably forget about that nice shining bus they showed you in the picture, for the Cambodia leg of the trip you'll be lucky if it's even a bus, let alone one with working A/C.
For more information on this trip see my Cambodia Overland section and specifically this page: the Khao San Road bus and this page: traveling the route on your own which explains the easy way to get to Siem Reap without using the services of these rip-off tourist buses.
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