While much of Thailand’s transit systems are disparate, with each requiring their own form of payment to ride, the government has been working to unify transportation for tourists in three of their most popular destinations: Phuket, Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Enter the Rabbit card and Rabbit pay system. Using the Rabbit card, tourists who prefer public/mass transit (such as us) can get discounts and cheaper fairs around the city. Since these discounts add up over time, especially when on a longer trip in Thailand, we put together this nifty guide explaining how and when to use the card.
In Phuket the card is used for a small bus (dubbed The Smart Bus) which runs the full West coast of the island, from the airport all the way down to Rawai Beach. The minivan is very nice, providing AC and wifi to all passengers. While it won’t drop you off directly at your accommodation, and may take a little longer than a taxi, it provides the best transportation rates you’ll find on the island and is perfect for budget travelers. For example, we were regularly quoted 800+ THB for a taxi vs the 170 THB maximum Smart Bus rate (in USD that’s approximately $21+ taxi vs $5.50 bus, as of Jan 2019). Needless to say, we avoided taxis our entire stay.
Assuming you arrive to Phuket via airplane, once you deboard make your way to the arrivals area of the domestic terminal. There you’ll find signs pointing you to taxi pickup, and shortly past that, a bus hub where the Smart Bus awaits (note, it’s hidden behind a billboard). The taxis do not like the addition of the Smart Bus as it’s eating into their profits and price fixing, so do not expect them to point you in the right direction if you ask for help in locating the buses. We also found most locals don’t know about the bus service since it’s new, so they were unfortunately unhelpful as well. Thankfully (only after we caught the bus) did we find this map showing the exact pickup location:
To ride the bus you have three payment options. The first is to pay straight cash. Using this route there’s a money drop box sitting near the driver where you can drop the funds. The fare is 170 THB every time, no matter your destination. Online they say exact fare is required and that no change will be given, but there were a few times we saw drivers offering change if you handed him the cash directly, so it’s up to you on whether to take the gamble or not. You may end up paying more for the same destination if they aren’t feeling generous that day.
The second form of payment accepted is the Rabbit Card. When paying with Rabbit, you get a discount based on the distance you go, tapping the card once when you hop on, and again when you hop off. The bus sells Rabbit cards on board, which costs 300 THB. This covers the 100 THB card deposit and comes preloaded with 200 THB for your first journey. After doing the math, we found it was worth buying the card if you plan to take at least three more short trips on the bus while in Phuket, or will be continuing on to Bangkok/Chiang Mai and want to use public transit in those destinations too. Otherwise, if you just plan to use it to get to/from the Phuket airport, it’s cheaper to pay the 170 THB in cash for each trip.
The last payment option is through using PromptPay, Alipay or WeChat Pay. We didn’t have any of these payment apps configured, nor did we try them, but from the Smart Bus website it looks like you only have the option to pay 170 THB per trip, similar to the cash method. Discounts are only available to Rabbit card users.
Some additional tips for Phuket Smart Bus:
- The card can be topped up with more funds at many destinations across the island. To find the closest one to you, visit Phuket Pay online and search for your current destination under the Service Center menu. Note that you can only add money (aka “top up”) in 100 THB increments.
- There were no official bus stop signs for the Smart Bus when we visited (hopefully this will change as the program gets more established). Until then, do not expect the driver to know you’re waiting for them and automatically stop for you. You’ll instead need to watch and hail as the bus approaches.
- The bus runs from 6:00am – 11:45pm and comes every 60 min or so (you’re on island time, so it’s usually late). You can find a list of each bus stop location here, but we found it still a bit confusing since there weren’t any signs. Instead we’d recommend using this website which not only shows you where you are in relation to the bus stops, but also where the buses are at along the route to watch their progress.
- The Rabbit card can also be used in other retail and dining shops around the island, sometimes even receiving a discount. We didn’t visit any such places, but if interested, you can learn more here.
- The Rabbit card lasts for five years from date of purchase, so you can even keep it if you’ll be visiting again in the future.
In Bangkok the Rabbit card is used to pay for trips on their skytrain system (BTS). It’s essentially an elevated light rail above the main city streets, providing you with transit to many areas of the city, all in air conditioned comfort. It’s also cheaper and (usually) faster than traveling to the same destination via taxi or tuk tuk.
If you don’t want to pay with Rabbit then there is the option to buy a ticket per trip. The cost will depend on the distance your going. However, by using rabbit you get a small discount each time, which ultimately adds up if you’ll be taking the train often.
When using the card there’s an NFC scanner on the cattle gates leading to and from the rail. Just tap it and you’ll be let through. Once to your final destination, tap again to exit and it’ll automatically deduct the appropriate fare based on distance travelled. The screen will even tell you how much is remaining on your card so you know when to top up.
Beyond the skytrain, the Rabbit card is used in Bangkok to pay for retail, building services, dining and more. This can be beneficial as it enables you to keep money in one location versus splitting it across multiple debit-like cards, or carrying cash. Using Rabbit saves you the hassle of getting a second card (which is required for purchases at that dining hall) and keeps your money on one card where you’re more likely to spend it. They also tend to offer promotions, often giving discounts when paying for these secondary type services (such as 5 THB off your meal when used in partner dining establishments). You can find a full list of the current promotions on their website here.
Some additional tips for the Rabbit Card BTS:
- The BTS is very efficient and runs on a regular schedule. For more information on specific stops, including route and terminal maps, check here.
- If you need to top up the card with more money, you can do it at any of the BTS station counters, or at the dining halls where they accept Rabbit pay. A full list of locations is listed here. As with Phuket, you can only top up in 100 THB increments. A full list of their top up locations can be found here.
- The BTS does not connect to either airport directly in Bangkok. If you fly into Don Muaeng, you’ll need to first catch the A1 bus that’ll take you to the Mo Chit BTS terminal. This costs 30 THB per person, cash. It’s located outside of the arrivals gate. Follow the signs or an attendant can point you in the correct direction. You pay once on the bus.
- From the Suvarnabhumi airport you catch a separate train to the Phaya Thai BTS station. It costs 45 THB per person, which can be bought from a digital kiosk. Just follow the signs at the airport to the train, or an attendant can point you in the right direction. Many people head into town this way, so it should be decently easy to spot and/or follow the crowds.
- The BTS operates from 5:00am – 12:00am (midnight). You can find more specific details at their webpage.
In Chiang Mai the Rabbit card is used for the local bus service (known as the RTC) and runs to/from the tourist areas of the city including Old Town, Nimman, Warorot Market and the airport. The bus comes equipped with an air conditioned cabin and free WiFi.
The interesting thing about this bus is that the fare is the same no matter what distance you travel (20 THB). As such, you can easily pay with cash or rabbit card. No discount is given for Rabbit users. Because of this, we only recommend getting a Rabbit card if you also plan to go to Bangkok or Phuket. Otherwise it’s just as easy to pay out of pocket for each ride and saves you the initial card deposit.
If catching the bus from the airport into the city, you’ll exit the terminal and follow the one way lane towards the main road. Eventually you’ll walk past a taxi parking area on the left. At this point you should find a bus sign and an attendant nearby with information for travelers. Usually they’re sitting next to an information table to help travellers.
Some additional tips for the Chiang Mai RTC:
- There are official stops and markers around the city for these buses. As such, it’s easy to locate them when interested in catching one. The signs even indicate which bus routes stop there and often provide a general timetable to reference, which is very handy.
- There were two apps advertised for the bus service: CM Transit and Via Bus. We found CM Transit didn’t work and crashed often so use Via Bus. It was accurate most of the time and only failed us during a holiday weekend when the bus routes changed but the app didn’t update to match. We boarded a bus only to have it veer heavily off course before heading to the place we intended. Thankfully the bus driver spoke good English and was able to help us get to the right destination.
- Taxis and tuk tuks will try to pick you up from the bus stop, poaching the fare. It will never be as cheap as the bus though, but could be faster. You make the call whether to negotiate with them or just wave them onward.
- Even though there may be bus signs, we found some were outdated with the older sign left in place. Thankfully we experienced this only outside of the main tourist area. If you travel to further destinations as well, we recommend checking the app to ensure you’re at an active stop. It also wouldn’t hurt to have a backup plan in place, such as Grab, should the bus pass you and you cannot wait for the next one.
- Stay alert and make eye contact with the driver as they approach. A few times the driver’s pointed to a nearby destination they wanted us to move to for a safer pickup.
- The bus typically runs from 6:45am to 8:45pm.
- The red and yellow line run almost identical routes, just different directions. If in a hurry, make sure you catch the correct one as going the long way can take quite a bit of time.
- You can only top up the card in 100 THB increments. A full list of their top up locations can be found here.
Update: As of February 2019, all Rabbit users are required to register their card. This was not enforced upon us, and we didn’t learn about this until after our departure from the country (in March). Regardless, registration sounds easy enough. According to Rabbit’s website, you just contact the Rabbit Service Center at BTS Siam Station in Bangkok from 8:00am – 7:00pm daily or BTS ticket offices during working hours. Bring your Rabbit card, passport and contact details (phone number/email address). The website lists nothing about how to register in Chiang Mai or Phuket, so good luck with that…if anyone else knows about this, please leave us a comment below.