Local buses connect towns and villages within one province or sometimes within two neighbouring provinces. Local buses exist in a variety of forms. A local bus may be air-conditioned or equipped with fans only; it may have soft reclining seats or hard, bench-like seats. Local buses may run on schedule or leave when full.
If there is more than one bus station in the city or town, local buses tend to use in-city bus stations which are often located very centrally and close to markets.
There is no need to book tickets for a local bus in advance – or rather it is impossible to do that. Buy tickets at the bus station before the departure. Prices are usually surprisingly low, but do not expect extra comfort. Normally the distance the local buses travel does not exceed 100 km, making the whole trip bearable. Note though, that a local bus will stop a hundred times on the way to its destination to let people in or out. When all seats are taken people will stand in the aisle or, at night, lie on the floor.
Express buses are normally interprovincial long-haul buses. Some bus companies mark them as ‘standard class’, ‘second class’ or ‘third class’ buses, too. Quite often, to reach their destination express buses travel through a number of provinces. The length of the route and travel time of such buses varies greatly. Regardless the name, express buses also stop during the route to pick up passengers, though less frequently than local buses do, or call to more bus stations en route than VIP buses. It means that express buses spend more time to cover the distance they have to travel than you can expect. E.g. Bangkok–Trat express bus needs at least from 8 to 10 hours to travel the distance just under 400 km.
The positive thing about express buses is that you can flag some of these buses down if you happen to find yourself somewhere in the middle of the route. Night express buses are nevertheless a good way to save some baht. They are more affordable than VIP buses and travelling by night do not make as many stops as when travelling by day.
Express buses have from 46 to 54 soft reclining seats and provide toilets on board. Many of these buses are well worn-out and do not leave you with much leg and elbow space. That said, on longer routes water and/or snacks may be served and buses make several stops at large gas stations where you can use toilets or stock up on munchies in convenience stores.
Locals do travel a lot by express buses and most popular destinations, especially during festive periods, sell out quickly. Note that express buses are not the most convenient way to travel around Thailand for a foreign visitor, but in general they are quite ok if you are modest in you requirement as far as comfort is concerned.
VIP & VIP24 buses
VIP buses are the most comfortable and sometimes even luxurious way to travel by bus in Thailand. VIP buses are interprovincial long-haul buses linking Bangkok to all the provinces around the country. If you travel the length of the country from south to north, you will have to connect via Bangkok; it may not be necessary if you need to get from the North to Isan.
VIP buses usually have from 32 to 40 soft seats that recline to an angle of 125 degrees and ensure decent spacing to make you feel comfortable during the trip. Some buses provide massage seats and almost all of them offer pillows and blankets on longer and especially night routes. Toilets on board come as a standard, though you may prefer to wait until your bus makes a stop at some large gas station where you find clean toilets and a choice of forecourt operators.
Water and some snacks are normally served on every route, and your bus ticket/boarding pass may qualify as a lunch or dinner voucher at the pit stop. As a rule, such stops last from 20 to 30 minutes. Long-haul buses departing after 8pm often stop for ‘dinner’ well after midnight, which is in fact quite an unusual time for foreigners to have a meal. On some routes lunch or supper is served on board in lunch boxes containing some rice with curry.
If you are used to sleep on the move, you may find night VIP buses a great way to travel; though you still can find it difficult to sleep comfortably through the whole trip: if it is not the TV or fellow passengers keeping you awake, then it will be the noise and the lights they turn on for every stop they make.
VIP24 or VIP32 are the most expensive and most comfortable buses on offer. Normally they have only three seats per row instead of usual four, which means more space and larger seats. Some of these VIPs feature personal entertainment stations in the form of screens; some have USB ports or power outlets. If you can afford it, we would highly recommend travelling by VIP24 buses. Regardless the price, seats sometimes sell out a couple of days prior to the departure date.
Note that VIP buses are also the fastest way to travel as they make only few stops en route bringing you to your destination in the shortest time possible. The second thing to note about VIP buses is that it can be freezing cold inside and even blankets they hand out do not always help; so it makes sense to pack a jacket or a sweater.