I’ve mentioned before how David and I are such a great team when traveling. One reason for this is that we complement each other, for instance, when it comes to getting around. I have no sense of direction. I can’t tell east from west, north from south. It was a considerable achievement for me when, while shopping at the Night Market in Siem Reap, I realized I had left my purse at a different stall, and managed to both retrieve the purse and also make it back to where David was.
However, David sucks at languages. At the end of our second day in Zurich, after having walked and taken trains everywhere, he turned to me and said, “You know, I think ‘strasse’ means ‘street’.”
So when we are in a city where we don’t speak the language, I tell him our location, and he looks at the map and figures out which way we need to go in order to get to the next place. It works really well most of the time.
I have to admit, I was surprised at how easy it was to get around Bangkok. I’m used to Europe being that way, and I expect Japan to be similarly visitor-friendly. But I had not anticipated Bangkok to have the kind of robust public transportation that it does. Planes, trains, automobiles… here we go.
Getting There and Away: By Plane
Bangkok has two major airports: Don Mueang and Suvarnabhumi. In this post I talk in some detail about Don Mueang (airport code DMK). This is the regional airport, which serves domestic flights and also flights around Southeast Asia in general. Suvarnabhumi (BKK) is the major international airport into which you’d most likely fly if you were coming from Europe or the US. DMK is located north of the city proper and BKK is southeast. Getting from one airport to the other can take about an hour or so, depending on what methods you choose, so take that into account if you have flights that go into one airport and leave out of the other.
Both airports are easily accessible by taxi. There is also a special train that goes from BKK to the city and back, called the Airport Rail Link. There are two kinds of trains: one that makes stops downtown, and the express which goes straight from Makkasan to the airport. The city train takes a half hour end to end, while the express train takes 15 minutes. Express is a bit pricier, but otherwise the difference is not significant. Take whichever is convenient depending on connections to other trains, or the location of your hotel. In our case, we were based in Asoke, and so took the express from Makkasan since it was down the street from our hotel.
Getting There and Away: By Train
Bangkok has a lot of trains that serve the rest of Thailand and even surrounding countries, usually from Hualamphong station. Many other sites, notably seat61, have a lot of good information on these trains, so I will not repeat them here.
However, I would like to share my experience with trains. We were traveling from Bangkok to Koh Samui and didn’t want to pay the $200/person in airfare. So we figured, why not take an overnight train and a ferry? It’ll save a night at a hotel and it’ll be an adventure. Why not.
Based on the advice from seat61, we decided to buy 2nd class tickets in the fan cabin. There were no bottom bunks left, so we went with top bunks. That was a terrible mistake. Here is why: besides a rotating ceiling fan, there is no ventilation in the top bunk. So, while those in the bottom bunks could open their windows (and the people underneath us chose not to), if they draw their curtains (and you draw yours), the wind from the train’s movement is not going to circulate inside the train. David and I spent the rest of the night pretty much sweltering in our bunks. We might have gotten an hour or so of sleep late at night, when the general temperature cooled down… luckily, we did this on the way to Koh Samui, so we had no real plans for the day we arrived on the island, and thus the lack of sleep was not a significant issue.
For those unused to tropical temperatures, I highly recommend getting an a/c cabin if you cannot get bottom bunks. The price difference will be worth the comfort.
Note also that the trains in the 2nd class cars only have squat toilets. Trying to squat in a moving train is a definite challenge for the untrained (hah). You have been warned.
Inside the city
Train: BTS (Skytrain)
From what we could tell, BTS is the most popular way to get around Bangkok. There are two lines: the Sukhumvit line which runs from Mo Chit north of the city and south to Bearing station, and the Silom line which runs from National Stadium west to Bang Wa. The lines intersect at Siam station, and also intersects with both the Metro (subway system) and the Airport Rail Express at specific points. See here for current route map.
There are various kinds of tickets for the BTS. A single journey starts at 15 Baht and goes up to 42. A one-day pass can also be purchased for 130 Baht. It is important to note that BTS tickets only work on the Skytrain, not the Metro or the Airport Link, so if you go for the day pass, make sure that you are going to get the full value out of it.
There is also the Rabbit card, but this would only make sense for those staying in Bangkok longer, as this card is refillable and reusable. The base price is 200 Baht, but part of that is for the card itself, so we don’t recommend it unless you need the convenience of not having to buy the tickets every time.
Speaking of buying tickets: if you choose to go with day pass, you will have to buy it at a ticket office, As for single journey tickets, these need to be purchased at a ticket vending machine. The machines only take coins, so when you get to the station, you have to find out how much your tickets will be, line up at the ticket booth to change your bills to coins, and then line up at the vending machine to buy your tickets. Bit of a complicated process but usually pretty quick.
Rush hour can be rough though and we recommend avoiding taking the BTS at this time, since most commuters seem to take the BTS. The trains get full to bursting and as such, the air conditioning can’t quite keep up and it gets pretty warm. This would be a good time to get a massage at the many massage parlors around Bangkok, even near the train stations, or perhaps grab a beer or two.
Also, since the BTS is an elevated train system, this can be a fun way to explore the city. If you’re riding along and see something that interests you, why not get off at the next stop?
Train: MRT (Subway)
Based as we were in Asoke, we used the MRT the most during our stay. We found it nicer than the BTS as well, since it seemed less crowded even during rush hour, and being underground, it was a lot cooler.
There is only one line with 18 stops, going northwest to southwest from Bang Sue station to Hua Lamphong.
The MRT uses tokens for single use. They can be purchased at vending machines or at the booth and range from 16 to 40 Baht for adults, depending on the number of stations traveled. You can also get a day pass for 120 Baht; its validity ends at midnight. For those staying longer, you may get a stored value ticket for 230 Baht, but like the Rabbit card for BTS, you have to pay an issuing fee and deposit, so this option doesn’t make a lot of sense for the casual tourist.
We had heard that Bangkok is the Venice of Asia because of its canals and waterways. You can hire a long-tailed boat to explore, which can cost several hundred Baht per hour depending on how well you negotiate.
You can also try the Chao Phraya Tourist Boat, which plies the Chao Phraya river and has 8 stops, from Phra Arthit Pier in the north to Taksin Pier in the south. It costs 150 Baht for the day and you can pick it up and get off at any of the stops.
Now, because David and I are just contrary, we absolutely refused to take the tourist express. We still wanted to check out the river though. So, after we toured Wat Pho, we found our way to Tha Tien pier (also checking out the market and having lunch at a restaurant on the water) and took a river taxi to Taksin (it cost only 15 Baht).
Taxis are easy to use if you’re going somewhere that the trains can’t get you, or if you’ve got baggage and would rather not deal with lugging them around. Bangkok’s taxis are regulated and safe, and each of them are required to have a license and a fare matrix posted. They are also required to use the meter, and you should insist on it for your own safety and to ensure you don’t get fleeced. If a cab driver refuses to use the meter, get out of the car… it’s not hard to get a different one.
Fares are very reasonable; we took a cab from our hotel to Taling Chan floating market early on a Saturday and it cost us around 200 Baht. It was quick too, probably around 40 minutes.
However, here’s the important thing to note: traffic can be pretty horrendous around downtown Bangkok during certain hours of the day. You can rack up the meter just sitting in one place, waiting for your cab to move. So, take a taxi only if other public transportation is impossible.
It’s easy to get information on the various forms of transportation that Bangkok offers. Your hotel should be able to provide you a map, and if not, both the BTS and MRT provide route maps on their websites that you can cache into your phone and access later during your travels. Lastly, if you really cannot figure out how to get somewhere, just ask someone! Thais are very nice people and are usually willing to help out. Just be cautious about the few potential evildoers out there and stay sensible, and you should get around just fine.