After travelling for a while in Thailand it becomes clear bus terminals are an important part of the towns, often to the extent of occupying their very center. Moreover, they all share the same design giving the feeling of having arrived home despite the town’s name or location. What else can a traveller ask for?
In an unexpected show of order, Thai bus terminals follow a very exact design. Understanding it ensures a smooth experience. Regardless their size, the central structure of most terminals is shaped as a "T." The horizontal bar is where the tickets offices, food plazas or stalls, police boxes and other administrative functions are located. The tickets windows are classified according to destination and sometimes – especially for busy destinations – even by class. In bigger terminals some of the signs feature at least the destination name in English; however, in secondary locations expect nothing but Thai. Learning enough to decipher the names is easy.
Along the vertical line of the "T" are the bus bays. Occasionally, tickets are sold next to the bays in the minutes just before the departure time; however the staff there is less likely to speak English. This option is especially useful if attempting to catch a bus at the last second. It is worth mentioning that approaching a bus directly and buying a ticket from the driver or the attendant is possible and worth a try, especially if the bus is just passing by the terminal. On the departure and final stops, tickets bought at the windows would be usually required.
Along the central spaces of the whole structure are benches – at night they are transformed into improvised beds. On the administrative areas – the horizontal bar of the "T" - electric outlets may be found and gadgets charged while waiting for the bus.
The basic design is broken in a few "super-terminals." Those include Mo Chit and the New Southern Terminal in Bangkok and – to a less extent – the terminal of Nakhon Ratchasima. Probably, future terminals of the kingdom’s largest cities would follow this design, which splits the terminal into various areas.
Large terminals are divided mainly in departure and arrival areas. The departure area may be subdivided into a local area serving buses travelling within the same province and nearby areas and an inter-provincial zone. The tickets selling windows area is an awesome sight, with dozens of tiny booths featuring larger than them Thai letters announcing the destinations served by them. The parallel English names often appear, though not always. In any case many of the staff speaks some English and purchasing the desired ticket is a breeze after the correct window is spotted.
While buying a ticket, make sure the exact location of the departure bay is stated on the ticket. Note that in rare occasions the departure bay may be changed minutes before the bus scheduled departure. Once I got stuck in such a way for forty-five minutes until the bus was found. Finally, the tickets’ vendor led me to the new bay, where the bus was waiting for the lost farang.
Invariably, the waiting areas of big terminals house restaurants (including fast food chains as KFC and Mr Donut) and basic Thai food plazas. Sometimes even a food market is nearby. The food market, located between the arrival and local buses areas, is a must since it features all the main Thai snacks and simple meals. The servings in these are relatively small since every stall specializes in one or two dishes. This is typical, probably because the heavy heat transforms big meals into unpleasant experiences. Thais eat several tiny meals during the day, most of them of the meat-over-rice or noodle soup types.
Interesting snacks are offered by small griller stalls serving sausages, skewed meat (including whole tiny birds, three on a stick), and skewed lumps of flour mixed with fish, meat or insects; the last are a big hit and can be seen also in most convenience stores, like 7-Eleven. The last favors locations near bus terminals and offer handy snacks and drinks regardless the hour, see the 7-Eleven entry in this journal for more details.
In western countries, travel hours are of concern. Once I arrived at Santa Fe at 2 AM only to find everything closed. Thailand is different. Many Thais work at night. The hot climate favors travelling by night and thus travel hubs are open all night; all-night markets are their natural extension. Travel at night is a breezy experience that allows seeing yet another side of this culture, without harming day visits to the main destinations and landmarks.