January's figures compared with a Reuters poll forecast for a fall of 3.0% in shipments, a main driver of Thai growth, and against December's 1.28% drop.
In January, shipments to the top two markets were higher, with the United States up 9.9% from a year earlier and China up 5.2%. But exports to Japan dropped 2.5%.
January's exports were not yet affected by the outbreak of a new coronavirus, official Pimchanok Vonkorpon told a news conference.
The export gains were lifted by a 300% surge in gold shipments. Excluding that, exports declined 1.5%.
If there are no large gold shipments in February, overall exports could contract, Pimchanok said.
Earlier, the Thai National Shippers' Council said exports might slump 10% in the first quarter from a year earlier due to the outbreak's impact on supply chains.
However, the commerce ministry still expects exports will grow between zero and 2% this year, Pimchanok said. Last year, exports declined 2.65%.
Exports should start improving in the second quarter, she said, adding shipments were expected to jump in the second half.
Imports in January fell 7.86% from a year earlier after rising 2.54% in the previous month, and compared with the forecast decrease of 15.85%.
January's trade deficit amounted to $1.56 billion versus a forecast of a $0.65 billion deficit and December's $0.60 billion surplus.
By Kitiphong Thaichareon