KAILA KRAYEWSKI takes the long and narrow road to the not-so-deep South
We’ve done the buses, the trains, and even the low-cost planes. Travel in Thailand is simple that way. You’re ferried from one place to another, switching tracks here and there, herded like sheep onto various vehicles of transportation. But within this context, it’s easy to miss the freedom of driving your own car, letting your hair blow in the wind, stopping when and where you want rather than being at the mercy of an overzealous bus driver blasting high-volume karaoke music as he barrels down a dark highway.
Yet the thought of a road trip can be a little unsettling. What about those of us who learned to drive on the other side of the road? What happens if you confront an elephant on the asphalt? And let’s not even get started on the laws of driving in Thailand. What if you get pulled over?
Fear not, the following tips to road tripping in Southern Thailand—starting on Koh Phangan and travelling to Khao Lak, Phuket, and Koh Yao Yai and back again—will break down the process.
1: Rent (or Buy) a Car
Rent from a reputable source and be sure to have either a Thai driver’s ID (you have to do a long day of testing to get one of these, but it’s worth it if you plan to do a lot of driving) or an international driver’s license. Check the insurance papers, kick the tires, and so on. Then take the car for a test drive. You’ll want to try taking it up a steep hill, because there are many parts of Southern Thailand that are very hilly, and you don’t want to stall on an incline with honking cars lined up behind you.
Make sure your vehicle is in good working order, and then negotiate a price. We paid B1000 per day for an SUV, but prices range from B650 to B2000 per day, depending on the quality of the vehicle and who you rent from.
2: Make Ferry Reservations
It is usually necessary to make reservations if you plan to take a car onto a ferry. The Raja Ferry shuttles vehicles between the mainland and Koh Samui/Phangan. We reserved the night before and had to wake up at ridiculous-o’clock to be in line an hour before departure. If you are not in line an hour beforehand, you get moved to the back and may not make it on the ferry. The same rules apply to the car ferry from Phuket to Koh Yao Yai—we didn’t make reservations and just barely made it on-board, even though we had arrived 45 minutes ahead of time.
3: Map out Your Route
Google Maps is an ideal app to use if you have a decent phone plan with your service provider. Have the person in the passenger seat read the map aloud as you go. If you’re not a believer in Google, then make sure you have some other navigational device—maybe even, gasp, a map.
4: Drive It Like You Own It
With any luck, you haven’t spent so long on the back of motorcycle taxis texting your mates on Facebook that you’ve forgotten how to drive. I was a bit rusty at first, but once I got moving, it was, well…like riding a bike—you never really forget, even if you’re seated in a new position.
The highway from Surat Thani to Khao Lak gets quite scenic towards the end of the route, especially about an hour outside of Khao Lak, when the road forks. We chose to take the route that Google Maps said was “three minutes longer.” It was definitely longer than that, but its twists and turns and jaw-dropping views made it worthwhile. The double-lane highway eventually becomes one lane, which makes it a bit nerve-racking when twisting around corners, but the lanes themselves are wide enough to pass in and remain almost in your own lane.
5: Be Vocal, when Necessary
Khao Lak was easy to find, however our guesthouse was not. Sometimes just asking people on the side of the road can be easier than using Google Maps. In extremely rural areas, such as Koh Yao Yai, don’t rely on technology. You may end up (as I did) nearly driving into the water. Ask around and follow your instincts.
6: What to Watch Out For
Driving in Thailand is quite different from driving in the West. People are always passing and driving for what seems like miles in the wrong lane, and Thai people have their own rules of the road, many of which differ from ours in strange and befuddling ways. Things to take note of:
- Sometimes, like in the north of Phuket, you may never see a speed limit sign. Go with the flow of traffic. Unless it’s a school zone, the speed limit is usually 60-80km per hour.
- If you’re stuck behind a truck and the driver turns on the left indicator, that means it is safe to pass (whether you choose to take this suggestion or not is up to you).
- Enjoy the ride! The sheer freedom of cruising down the open road far outweighs the intimidation factor of driving in a foreign country. Obey the speed limit, be nice to other drivers (road rage is rampant in Thailand and can get nasty), and smile as you drive past million-year-old limestone karst towering in the distance.
Koh Phangan → Surat Thani
Approximately 2.5 hours on the Raja Ferry
* Ferry reservations can be made online at rajaferryport.com. The cost is B550 for one car and driver, and B210 per person thereafter.
Surat Thani → Khao Lak
Approximately three to four hours by car, depending on the frequency of stops you make on the side of the road—we took many, and it was worth it.
Khao Lak → Phuket
On the way out of Khao Lak, set aside a few hours to check out the stunning natural park, which is home to the aptly-named “Small Sandy Beach”—one of the most gorgeous beaches not only in Thailand, but anywhere in the world. There are numerous seafood restaurants on the way out of the park, all serving fresh catches from the Andaman Sea. If your tummy is grumbling after your hike, stop at one for lunch—there won’t be any more restaurants until Phuket. It’s approximately a two-hour drive to Kamala.
Phuket → Koh Yao Yai
Getting to Chainawarat Pier takes time—there is a lot of traffic along the way. Leave at least two hours before the ferry is scheduled to depart if coming from Kamala or Bangtao. You will need a good map for this; it’s a windy route with lots of turns. Call 08 1091 0630 or 08 1956 5470 to book a spot on the ferry. They don’t speak English, so find a Thai interpreter. Tickets cost B400 for one car plus driver, and B100 per person after that.
The car ferry leaves at 7am and 2pm from Phuket to Koh Yao Yai. Bringing a car to Koh Yao Yai is a really good idea since it is quite a big island and virtually no taxis exist. If you want to drive to the north of the island (highly recommended), a car makes the journey much easier.
Koh Yao Yai → Koh Phangan
Unfortunately there is no car ferry from Koh Yao Yai to Krabi, so it’s necessary to go back through Phuket for the return journey. This is a bit of a pain, but it is possible to take a different road in order to enjoy different scenery.
On Fridays, there are no early morning ferries from Laem Yai Pier on Koh Yao Yai to Phuket, so book accordingly. Ask your hotel to make a reservation on the ferry for you the night before.
Total Petrol Costs: Approximately B2500 or three tanks.
Budget: Bavaria Inn
This simple guesthouse is set back from the road, but it’s cheap, it’s clean, and the staff are very friendly. The beach is about 10 minutes away by foot. It’s great for groups, with its two large beds. There is no sign reading Bavaria Inn from the road. Instead, look for SS Emerald Suites, its old name.
Splurge: Samsara Phuket
This award-winning estate consists of eight expansive villas that vary in size and personality, with one common theme: ultra-luxury. If you come with a group, it is well worth breaking the budget to enjoy a few nights overlooking Kamala Bay in villas that have captured the attention of celebrities the world over—including Rihanna.
Koh Yao Yai
Mid-Range: Glow Elixir Koh Yao Yai
With deals offering rooms as low as B2100 for a sea-view villa, Glow is an excellent choice for a stay on Koh Yao Yai. This relatively new resort is still getting on its feet, but it is very much on its way to winning accolades. The beachfront restaurant has a fantastic array of delicious Thai and Western food, and a decent wine menu for an island off the beaten path. If you are travelling in a group, snag one of the two-bedroom pool villas. Bida massage, across the road from the resort’s entrance, is a must-visit, as well.