How not to get lost in Bangkok
Bangkok is an ugly city. Not meaning to be offensive, but it is filthy, messy, noisy, chaotic and full of scammy tuk-tuk drivers. Honestly, if they would only understand that tourists would be so much happier and willing to pay more if they weren’t hassled for overpriced tuk-tuks and taxis with every step they take.
Anyway, with the negativity off my sleeve, it is not only bad words that I have for Thailand’s capitol city. Bangkok is also rich of beautiful temples, friendly locals, delicious streetfood and so much more, all carefully hidden in the mess of the urban jungle. Most of all, if there would be the need to describe it in one word, the city is overwhelming.
Many people only have a few days to spend in Bangkok, to recover from a long flight before moving on to more rural areas, a party island or one of Thailand’s neighbouring countries. If you are short on time, it would be a waste to spend one or two days dwelling around the city, still carrying your massive, overpacked backpack in search for your accommodation. Unfamiliar with the knot of dozens of different systems of transport in Bangkok, that is unfortunately what I ended up doing. With this guide about the transportation in a nutshell, I hope to prevent any future travelers to make the same mistake.
Airport Rail Link: Assuming that you fly into Bangkok (Suvarnabhumi Airport), the Airport Rail Link system will be one of the first of Bangkok’s transport systems that you will walk into. As the name might suggest, this is the line that connects the airport to the city centre and its BTS-line (keep reading). The Airport Rail Link system works well and is great to get to the centre. Whether you will continue by BTS, taxi, rental car or something else from here, it saves you the express highway toll fees, so you can’t really go wrong here.
BTS-line: BTS, short for Bangkok Transport System, is some sort of aerial metro that makes its way through Bangkok. The BTS is cheap* and flies over all of Bangkok’s traffic without a hiss. Many hotels and guesthouses, often the little bit more expensive ones, are located somewhat next to a BTS-station. If this is the case, it won’t be any trouble to find your hotel using only the Airport Rail Link and the BTS. Lucky you.
Unfortunately, many of the (cheaper) hostels are not situated next to a BTS-station. The cluster of backpackers around Khao San Road can not be reached by BTS (nor can the temples in the same area, even if you are in a conveniently located hotel), not even speaking of hostel located in non-touristy areas. If this is the case, don’t do it. Not on your first day anyway. Do not forget that Bangkok is massive and that what looks like a short walking distance on your map might actually turn out to be a good hour walk. In 30° Celcius. In a humid environment. With at least 10 kg strapped to your back…
*The BTS is not horribly expensive, between 25 and 50 baht (€0.70 – €1.30) depending on distance, for a single ticket. However, if you are going to be using the BTS a lot or going long distances, it might be profitable to look into day- or weekpasses .I only found out about these after my time in Bangkok had passed, because they are not advertised very well, but they are there and can safe you a lot of money! Just ask about them at the ticket desk.
MRT: The reason that most of Bangkok’s metro system is aerial, is because it was built after most of the city was built and it would have been impossible to dig a regular metro tunnel. However, there is one metro line, that in its turn connects to the BTS. This metro line is indicated as MRT and works exactly the same as the BTS, but underground. The MRT can be used to get to Hua Lamphong station!
Taxi: So, if not the BTS, what should you use then? As a Western European, a taxi sounds like a rather luxury and unnecessarily expensive option. However, the opposite is true. The meter-taxis in Bangkok have a starting fee of 35 baht (€0.90) and slowly rises as you travel more kilometres. This is not so expensive and could even turn out to be cheaper than the combination of a bus and BTS if you travel with two or more people!
The great thing about taxis is that they get you where you want to be, without having to change transport or anything. The drawback is that taxis are prone to traffic and the meter can run up a fair bit when your taxi can not move, thus be careful around rush hour! During this period of the day you are better off taking a moto-taxi if you are brave enough to get on the back of a motorcylce or boosted moped.
Also be aware that the express highway from the airport is going to cost you an extra 100 baht (€2,60) or more if your driver takes a more expensive one. Even more so, especially around the airport, be aware of taxi-drivers that are trying to arrange a price with you by not turning the meter on. If it is not running when you get in the taxi, just point at it and ask politely if he can run the meter, any driver will understand. If he refuses, get out of the taxi and wait for the next one, unless you want to pay at least a double fee. There are plenty of taxis around Bangkok so finding one shouldn’t give much of a delay.
Tuk-tuk: when you find yourself in South-East Asia, there is no way your are going to be able to spend your time without running into at least a few tuk-tuks and their obtrusive drivers. I must admit it, the first and second ride in these colourful wagons are fun and I am not saying you should avoid them completely. The thing is, that tuk-tuks, unlike taxis, do not have meters, and they will use this privilige in orde to charge too much. However, when you want to get somewhere on a day-trip out of the city, tuk-tuks are your way to go. You can rent one for a day for an arranged price and they will wait for you at whichever site you wanted to go to. Because you pay for the tuk-tuk and not the amount of people in it, it is great if you can find four people or so to share.
Water-taxi: Despite that I thought this was one of the most fun ways to move around in Bangkok, I only used the water-taxi once. As the name might give away, this is a “taxi” or actually more like a bus (because it is not private) on the water. It speeds along the river and the stops on the banks. Make sure not to confuse the water-taxi with expensive tourist boat services! The tickets are sold on the boat.
As I mentioned before, the temples can not be reached by BTS, however, if your accommodation is close to the BTS-line, I would recommend taking the BTS to Taksin and the water-taxi from there. It will take you straight to the Grand Palace (and all the temples surrounding it) for a mere 35 baht (€0.90) and gives you the great experience of seeing all the tourists sights along the river, while rushing over the water.
Bus: Taxis and tuk-tuks aside, Bangkok’s streets are probably most occupied by colourful, rather old buses. Buses are really cheap, no doubt the cheapest way of transport in Bangkok. Have I saved the best for last? Not really, unless you are planning to spend a lot of time in Bangkok. Buses are namely cheap, but horribly confusing, I haven’t been able to get hold of anything that looked remotely like a bus schedule anywhere, nor have I seen any other tourists using buses.
This observation is probably thanks to the fact that bus stops are blue signposts along the road. The signs let you know that a bus will stop there, but not which one and only
God Buddha may know where each bus is headed. Most buses come every ten minutes though, and locals seem to be knowing where they are going, so your best guess is to just ask them and hope somebody understands English.Google maps can help too, but it is not always correct (got me on the wrong bus once or twice). In about five days in Bangkok, I managed to find three usable buses that would take me to almost anywhere in the city I desired and once it works, it works. Plus, all the locals love it when they find tourists on the bus, be prepared to have many seats offered to you when the bus is full!
Update: Additional information from a reader, who found a good website with bus times and schedules. Very helpful!
All in all, there are plenty of choices to get move yourself around in Bangkok. The issue is that many operators are not even remotely working together, one way or another. Having spent enough time in all of them, I think everybody will develop their own preference of transport methods or combination of methods. I personally thought that a combination of bus and BTS worked pretty well and if not I would get a meter-taxi. Most of all, having given you a heads-up about the systems, I hope to have saved you some time and a back ache from walking heavily loaded.
Nevertheless, don’t blindly trust my advice, do your own research and if you find anything outdated or have some additional information about anything I forgot, don’t hesitate to let me know and I will edit!