Bangkok is one of the most colourful, vibrant and exciting cities in Asia; a city to excite all the senses with its sights, sounds, smells and tastes. Many who visit from the relatively calm cities of Europe and America may find the Thai capital just a little overwhelming, and particularly its notoriously busy roads.
Bangkok is certainly a stimulating city, and full of experiences, but one thing the average tourist will not want to experience is long, fume-filled traffic jams in a hot, humid climate. but that can be the norm in this city. What's more, many visitors will only spend a few days in Bangkok before moving off elsewhere, so time may well be at a premium, and finding the most pleasant AND efficient way to get around is important.
As the author of this short article, my knowledge of Bangkok transport is as a regular visitor spending some time in Bangkok on 9 separate visits - not a fully-integrated resident, but also not a novice - and as such I think I am qualified to offer advice to anyone who simply wants a quick guide to the best way to get around in Bangkok. And that is how this article is written - not for seasoned travellers to Thailand - but for those who are vsiting for the first time, wishing to make best use of their time, and who want to have only good memories and not hot, sticky memories of traffic frustration.
First we will briefly look at flight arrivals in Thailand and how to get to the city from the airport. Then we will look at modes of travel within the city. Finally we will look at trips out of Bangkok to the surrounding countryside.
Taxis, tuk-tuks buses and motorcycles - which is best for the tourist to use?
All photos have been taken by the author. If more detailed information on transport services is required, links to relevant and comprehensive websites are included.
At the time of writing (updated 2019):
1 U.S dollar = 32 Thai baht
1 British pound = 42 Thai baht
GETTING TO BANGKOK
In this first section we should consider the first task for any visitor - how to get from Suvarnabhumi International Airport (the point of entry for almost all foreign tourists) to their hotel or other address within the city.
If you're on an escorted tour, then you may be met by a tour guide. On the other hand, if you intend to be fully independent, you may want to hire a car (a brave choice to drive in the city!) There are rental firms in 'Arrivals'.
However, assuming neither of these apply, then you will need to decide how to get to your accommodation in the city. Many tourists will pre-book their transport, and will be met by the driver in the airport concourse, but the price you'll pay for this convenience will be very high, and it really is easy to make your own arrangements on arrival.
Taxis are the obvious choice. In the Arrivals hall there are official airport limousine services, but these are also quite expensive. And you may also be approached by taxi driver touts offering their services. Politely decline unless you can negotiate a very good price. Instead, head down the escalator one level, and go outside to where the licensed public taxi ranks are to be found. These have to conform to legal standards. Join the queue at one of the desks and take a ticket which gives the number of the bay where your taxi will be waiting. Tell the driver where you're going and make sure the taxi meter is turned on. Keep the ticket because it's like your receipt and guarantee. That's it. The price to the city, including airport surcharge (not shown on the meter) and two express-way tolls, should be in the region of 300-400 baht (depending on distance and duration).
Traffic in Central Bangkok. The cars (note the brightly coloured taxis) and above them are the concrete walkways and supports of the BTS Skytrain service
An alternative to the taxi, is the Airport Rail Link (ARL). To reach this, descend the escalators as far as they will go. This regular service runs from about 6.00 am until about midnight, and several of the stations on the line connect to the inner city train services. Using the Airport Rail Link is quicker than taking a taxi and much cheaper, but you'll need to know the nearest station to your hotel, and there will probably be a bit of a walk with your luggage at the other end. Do you really want that after a long flight?
The same applies to bus transfers from the airport. These are the cheapest option, and several lines serve the city. However, unless you know your way around Bangkok, the taxi is probably the best option for most tourists.
Further advice on transfers from Suvarnabhumi, and from Bangkok's other airport, Don Muang, can be found at the Transit Bangkok website. A short description of this site can be found at the end of this article.
Colourful taxis brighten the streets
One of the green-and-yellow taxis (note also the orange jacketed motorcycle taxi drivers)
Once safely esconced in your luxury hotel or less luxury hostel, you'll want to get out and explore. For visitors to any foreign nation, and particularly one with an unfamiliar language, the obvious and most convenient way to get around is by taxi. Almost all cities have them, and so there's a comforting familiarity about them. In London they have their black cabs. And in New York they have their famous yellow taxis. In Bangkok, they have pretty much every colour under the sun, so long as its bright enough to be seen at a great distance! Green, yellow, green-and-yellow, bright blue, pink, red and orange. The different colours reflect different companies, but a broadly similar service is offered by all, and prices should be the same.
Some acknowledge a distinction with the green-and-yellow cabs, which are probably the most common. These are privately owned, so some claim the service may be better, but in practice, the quality of service depends on the driver you get.
Always insist on the meter being on. (Price starts at 35 baht). The meter ticks over based on both distance and time - relevant during rush hours when the journey may take twice as long as normal. Sometimes the taxi driver may tell you a fare in advance, but this will be much in excess of the metered price. (This often happens late at night when other services are hard to come by, and outside popular venues where the taxis may wait for any customer who needs their services, and presumably expect to compensation for waiting. If you just want to get back home, then fine - the fare still isn't exorbitant - but take a metered ride and the fare may be half as much. The metered price for any journey within the city will usually be less than 100 baht.
Bangkok Taxi drivers aren't all very knowledgeable of locations in the city, and there may language problems, so it's a good idea to have a map, or write down the address. There are also occasional problems with minor scams, some of which are detailed in the links later in this article, but generally the service is good. Giving tips is not normal practice, though rounding up by a small amount to a convenient sum may be appropriate.
Pros: The easiest, most familiar, and comfortable form of transport which will take you right to the doorstep. And therefore of course, the best if you have luggage to carry.
Cons: Unsurprisingly the most expensive mode of travel, and in the busiest parts of the city it's not the quickest of the personalised transports!
Brightly coloured tuk-tuks parked up near the shopping district of Siam Square
Apart from taxis, there are two other personalised modes of transport easily available in Bangkok. One of these is the tuk-tuk - surely the mode of transport most associated of all with Bangkok roads. Tuk-tuks are the low power motortricycles which I suppose are one step up from a rickshaw. Seriously these open-air 3-wheeler taxis are ubiquitous and easy to hail. Many of them are lovingly maintained and attractively painted, and contain a sofa-like seat which can take 2 or 3 passengers. Agree a price beforehand, because they're not metered, and be sure you are dropped off at the right place. If not, refuse to pay. Expect the price to be similar to a taxi.
The tuk-tuk is not ideal in bad weather because they are open-sided, and you are exposed to the Bangkok traffic fumes. Certainly when the tuk-tuk picks up speed the ride can be quite exhilerating, though probably not up to the safety standards of most European countries or the USA. I would suggest one ride in a tuk-tuk just because it's definitely one of the Bangkok experiences, but it's your choice.
Pros: As easy as a taxi, and sometimes a bit quicker, due to its ability to wend its way through traffic as it takes you to your destination. And an interesting experience!
Cons: Not as comfortable as a taxi, and in a traffic jam - or in a thunderstorm - the fumes, the noise or the rain may make this a less than comfortable means of travel. Haggling may be required (before setting off), and safety is for you to consider.
A tuk-tuk driver patiently awaits his next fare
The last of the personalised modes of transport are the motorcycle taxis, and it won't be long before any visitor to this city notices bike riders clad in orange tunics. They are not Pizza Hut delivery riders or such like - the only thing they deliver is people. They ferry individuals to wherever they want to go. Their principal clientele will be local people, but there is no reason why tourists should not use them too. Motorcycle ranks where the riders accumulate are at key locations in the city (for example close to train stations or on prominant intersections) but you can find them anywhere.
Prices as you would expect are cheaper than for taxis or tuk-tuks, but be prepared to haggle, because otherwise as a tourist you're likely to be overcharged. As far as safety is concerned, there are helmets available - make sure the driver offers you one. The advantages of the motorcycle taxi are obvious - quick transfer to wherever you want to go, and if you're into that sort of thing, maybe it's a great way to travel. Not for me though - too noisy, too exposed to the rest of the traffic, and too scary - not so much for me, but for the risk to the camera gear I always carry!
Pros: Surely the quickest of the personalised transport methods. Just hop on a bike and go straight to your destination. Probably also the most exciting means of getting around.
Cons: Full exposure to rain, noise, and pollution, and not good of course if you have luggage or shopping to carry. As for safety - no comment! Your choice.
Motocycle taxi at work - clearly the limitations on how much you can carry are not too restrictive for this passenger
Motorcycle taxi rank near Asok Skytrain Station. the riders await their next fare
Public buses are the staple for many folk in cities around the world, and the City of Bangkok is no exception. The local people will hop on a bus and know where they're going and they'll get there for a minimal fee, paid to the conductor. But they are essentially a transport for the locals. Written English information at the bus-stops is in short supply so if you don't know the routes or language, then there is going to be considerable difficulty in knowing which bus to catch or where to get off. However, if you wish to try, there are online resources available - including the 'Transit Bangkok' website which is described later. This has maps showing bus routes and other information. The Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (BMTA), which administers the main bus services, also publishes a map, available at bus terminals.
There is a wide array of different buses, and the best guide to the services they provide is the bus colour. Red/cream buses are the cheap end of the range with a fixed fare of less than 10 baht per journey (however far), but they are not air-conditioned which makes them less than comfortable in the heat of the day. More comfort is to be found on the yellow/orange buses - priced according to distance travelled, but generally more than twice as expensive. They are, however, air-conditioned and modern. Apparently the service provided is also more polite! Other lines also exist including blue/white buses and purple mini-buses - some with flat rate fares and some not, some air-conditioned and well maintained, and some not.
There is one aspect of the local bus service worth mentioning and considering. Much of Bangkok's public transport shuts down in the early hours but low cost red/cream buses continue through the night should you find yourself stranded somewhere.
One of the Bangkok city buses
Pros: The cheapest form of public transport - it is possible to travel across Bangkok for just 20 baht. Also the system covers the entire city, so you're never too far from a stop.
Cons: City buses are not always in great condition. The non-Thai speaking tourist may not be able to find his way around, or know which bus to take, or where to disembark.
One of the songthaews - a characteristic mode of public transport in Thailand
The songthaew is a peculiarly Thai form of transport - a sort of a cross between a bus, a taxi and a tuk-tuk - and yet basically a pick-up truck with a covered roof and benched seating along the sides. Often they have set routes, with the destinations painted on the sides, or on signs in the back, but this may be in the Thai language. They may also have set prices for these routes, but no set times. They will just park up for as long as it takes to get enough passengers to make the trip worthwhile. If you can board here and travel the same route as everyone else, then you should be able to pay the same price. But unsurprisingly, the drivers will often try to charge a foreigner more than a local.
Songthaews can also be hailed from the side of the street, and when they stop, other passengers will just jump on. In this way, they can get pretty crowded, even with people hanging off the sides! And if you hail a moviing songthaew, you may be able to negotiate a short detour if your destination is different to the rest of the passengers.They will also carry solo passengers if their destination is not too far out of their way - and if the price is right! That's when haggling really comes into play. Even for tourists who want sole occupancy of the back of a songthaew, the price is not usually exorbitant if you haggle (cheaper than tuk-tuks or taxis).
Songthaews are more common in some of the outlying towns, but may be encountered in Bangkok. Most tourists in the city however, will not find a use for these pick-ups. My advice is to avoid them in Bangkok, but in nearby places like the resort town of Pattaya, it's a different story. There they may be a useful method of getting from A to B.
Pros: Modest prices. For a higher price, they may provide a personalised service.
Cons: Not very convenient or easy to understand for foreigners, and only available in certain parts of Bangkok.
The BTS Skytrain
THE BTS SKYTRAIN AND THE MRT SUBWAY TRAINS
And now we come to what is probably the most useful means of transport for most first time visitors to Bangkok who are spending more than a day or two in the city, and who want to get around without traffic jams and with a small degree of comfort. Bangkok's local train services are the BTS Skytrain and the MRT Subway. Many tourist hotels are located close to the stations, and if you're intending spending more than a day or two in town, it's well worth checking out how close the nearest station is, before booking, as both provide an easy, convenient way of getting to the parts of the city that most tourists will want to visit.
The BTS Skytrain runs - as the name suggests - up in the sky, on monorails above the streets of the city, and whilst the overbearing concrete supports of the railway and attendant walkways are a bit of an eyesore, the service is worth getting to know. Elevators are not found at many stations which limits their accessibility to disabled tourists, but for all others, the stations are easy to use. Ticket machines only accept coins. If you only have notes, you can change them at a kiosk before going to the machine. Once you've got your ticket, pop it into a slot in a turnstyle to let you on to the platform. Trains run very regularly, so you won't have long to wait. Once on board, a public address system announces each station on arrival.
Many parts of Bangkok are not covered, but the main commercial district of Siam is at the heart of the Skytrain service, and the two lines - the Sukhumvit and Silom - interconnect here, and both have recently been extended. The Sukhumvit Line provides good access to the southern province of Samut Prakan where a number of interesting tourist attractions are to be found. The northern terminal of Mo Chit gives access to the famous Chatuchak Weekend Market. The Silom Line takes one to the Chao Phraya River, and has recently been extended west across the river to Thonburi. Prices are reasonable, and the maximum fare is only about 50 baht. However day passes and rechargeable cards can be purchased, which may be more economical or convenient. The service does not operate into the small hours of the night, so if you plan on staying out after midnight, you'll need another means of transport home.
It's easy to tell the difference between the BTS Skytrain and the MRT train services. For the BTS you climb, and for the MRT, you descend. For this is the underground railway system or Subway. The service offered is similar to that of the Skytrain, but takes a very different route and there are only two or three stations where easy interchange between the systems is possible. Instead of a paper ticket, a plastic button-like tab is issued, and this is used to operate the turnstyles. As with the Skytrain, rechargeable cards are available. Tourists will generally find the Skytrain station locations more useful, but the Subway does access some important sites including the Chatuchak Market, Lumphini Park and Patpong Night Market, and Chinatown.
Pros: The easiest and quickest method of public (non-personal) transportation for the tourist to use, with clear instructions in English.
Cons: You may have to stand for the duration of the journey in the busy parts of the city. Trains cannot cover the entire city, and cannot take you to your doorstep, so they may have to be used in conjunction with other services.
A chart shows the price of a ticket to all other stations on the two skytrain lines, from the station at which you embark
Having selected your destination and inserted your coins, an easy-to-operate machine dispenses your ticket
Train services are regular and frequent. And boarding and disembarking is orderly. Foot marks on the platform indicate where one should queue, allowing passengers to get off the train before boarding. Both the BTS and MRS systems work very well
THE EXPRESS RIVER BOATS OF THE CHAO PHRAYA RIVER
One must also mention the rivers and canals of Bangkok. Once upon a time these were the main thoroughfares of the city, and even today some elements of river life, such as the tradition of the floating market, remain a Bangkok feature, Today, however, the majority of the smaller canals or 'klongs' are redundant as far as transport just for the sake of getting around the city is concerned, though locals will use some of them for quick traffic-free travel during the rush hour. For tourists the klongs serve more of a novelty function (see next section). One waterway, however, does remain a vital resource both for city commerce and commuter traffic, and for all sight-seeing tourists. This is the Chao Phraya River - the main natural artery of the city, whose banks are lined with historic temples and other attractions, as well as modern retail, service and other business outlets.
On the river, many types of boat ply their trade, but the main passenger boats are the Chao Phraya River Express Boats. Several lines exist, identified by the colours of the flags they fly. Some are fast and very cheap services which only stop at one or two locations, intended for commuter traffic and for anybody who just want to get to their destination quickly. You may use these if the stations served are close to your desired destination. But for tourists, the two most convenient services to look out for are the blue and the orange flag boats. Blue flags are flown by boats which carry an English language announcement and tourist guide to offer advice. They stop at the most popular tourist destinations, and they are in effect, a tourist boat. They are relatively expensive (40 baht per ride) though a day ticket can be purchased for 150 baht. I use the orange flag line. These stop at every single station along the route, so they are slower, but you can follow the route on your map and hop on or off at any station that takes your fancy. The price is just 15 baht per trip. Tickets can be bought at a booth at the station, but you can board without paying and a conductor will collect the fee for a single trip. One minor word of caution - sometimes there is more than one pier at a station, so be sure you wait at the right pier for the boatline of your choice.
One other boat type must be mentioned. 'Ferries' make the very short trip across to the other bank from several of the stations - useful as very few road bridges cross the river. Ferries are superficially similar to the express boats, but shorter and plumper.
The services are identified by the flags they fly. Blue flag boats can be used by anyone but are the most tourist-friendly
Pros: The only kind of kind of transport which runs on water!!! Therefore these boats are ideal for efficient travel along the Chao Phraya River. Convenient, reasonably cheap, and offering a great view of some of the city's attractions.
Cons: The only kind of kind of transport which doesn't go overland!!! So naturally the river boats are limited in their usefulness.
One of the cross-river ferries
Special mention should be made of the long-tailed boats - an even more iconic Thai sight than the tuk-tuk. Long-tailed boats are considered in their own section here, as they are not a typical 'water-bus' of the kind which was covered in the previous section. To merely travel up and down the Chao Phraya River, use the boats described above.
But to the west of Bangkok lies the district of Thonburi, which was once the capital but is now very much a backwater. Numerous klongs lined with welcome greenery are characteristic of this area, and the narrow long-tail can provide a fast, enjoyable and practical way of getting around. Long-tails are privately hired and serve as a tourist adventure rather than public transport, and as you might expect, they are expensive - c1000-2000 baht for an excursion through the klongs. There are important sites in Thonburi such as the Royal Barges Museum, but the real appeal is simply the experience and the chance to see Bangkok as it used to be with overgrown creeks and dilapidated wooden houses - it's like a journey into the past. Long-tails can be hired from travel companies or at some of the boat stations on the river. You can also pay extra for a guide if you wish.
A long-tail boat passes one of the temples on the Chao Phraya River
Pros: An iconic experience to be enjoyed, and the best way to negotiate the narrow creeks west of Bangkok.
Cons: More expensive and less comfortable than the water buses on the big river, and exposed to bad weather. Not good in the rain! They can also be a little awkward for the less physically able to climb into and use.
One of the long-tail boats speeds past a temple complex - boating on the rivers and canals is a good way to see many of the key sights of Bangkok
And finally - the most basic mode of transport of all, of course, is your own two feet.
Pros: I hardly need to spell out the general pros and cons of walking. But specifically in Bangkok, seeing and hearing the sights and sounds of authentic Bangkok, experiencing local people, exploring backroads - all best with walking, and all free.
Cons: The much mentioned heat, humidity, fumes, and the problems with negotiating busy roads are issues which need to be considered when going for a walk in Bangkok.
Bangkok by night - on the main streets, the traffic never stops
DAY TRIPS AWAY FROM BANGKOK
Before concluding, we will very briefly look at day trips out of Bangkok. Most hotels will have a brochure of excursions to outlying attractions, usually involving coach travel and maybe a boat trip. These are the best way of cramming as much as possible into your day. But what of the independent tourist who wishes to go it alone? Taxis could be used, and are worth considering if you are travelling in a small group, but buses and trains are a much cheaper option for solo travellers.
There are several bus terminals from which air-conditioned coaches and minivans carry passengers out of the city.The main national rail station is Hua Lamphong, close to Chinatown and with a direct connection to the MRT Subway. Hua Lamphong is the focal point for rail services to all parts of Thailand, as well as providing a rail link to Don Muang, Bangkok's second airport and main hub for regional and domestic flights.
From Hua Lamphong, or from the northern bus terminal of Mo Chit, the ancient city of Ayutthaya can be visited 80 km north of Bangkok. Minivans also depart for here from the Victory Monument in Bangkok. Ayutthaya was the former capital of Thailand, destroyed by invading Burmese forces 250 years ago and now a site of imposing temple ruins. Tours can be organised from most hotels at a cost of a few thousand baht. But bus and minivan journeys here are especially cheap - less than 100 baht - and take less than two hours. Once at Ayutthaya, tourists can hire bicycles, or use tuk tuks to visit the ruins which are just a few kilometres from the train and bus drop-off points.
Other sites which can easily be reached from Bangkok include the famous floating market of Damnoen Saduak, and Sampran Riverside (the Rose Garden) - a cultural centre 30 km west of the city. Buses can be used to get there, but I would suggest an organised day excursion to take in several such sites - this is more convenient, relaxed and time-efficient for a first time visitor, than trying to organise your own transport.
South of Bangkok in the province of Samut Prakan, are several places worth visiting including the extraordinary Muang Boran and the Erawan Museum. There's also a world famous crocodile farm. These can all be reached by taking the BTS Skytrain Sukhumvit Line to its southern terminal at Bearing, and then hiring a taxi or a local shuttle bus.
Finally, a trip further south to the beach resort of Pattaya, 150 km from Bangkok, may be tempting. For journeys here, the cost of a taxi should be about 2,000 baht. Compare that to the cost of a bus ride - c120 baht for a two hour journey. The buses used for these long trips are perfectly comfortable and air-conditioned, and are probably the best way to travel, with frequent departures and arrivals throughout the day. Tickets can be bought at the Ekkamai Bus Terminal (close to the BTS station of the same name), or from other bus terminals such as Mo Chit or Sai Tai Mai. Minivan services also go to Pattaya from the vicinity of Bangkok’s Victory Monument.
Hua Lamphong Railway Station is a national rail terminal. Trains from here carry passengers to all the regions of Thailand
IN SUMMARY - MY RECOMMENDATIONS
In this section I summarise my advice on getting into and around the City of Bangkok. My advice is for those who wish to get around without hassle, without getting scammed, without having to learn Thai, and without paying over the odds for a trip across town.
I'd say a licenced taxi is the most convenient way to get to your hotel from the airport. There is no need to pay over the odds for this. Just go down a level from 'Arrivals' to a taxi desk. It's easy. If you're a backpacker and money is really tight, you could take the train, but I'd say treat yourself to a taxi after a long flight.
In town, use the Skytrain or Subway for most journeys. They are convenient for most of the hotels and the shopping malls, many of the markets and other tourist attractions. The Skytrain is also ideal for getting to the Chao Phraya River at Saphorn Taksin. There is a river boat station metres from the train station. Many of the most important tourist attractions including the most famous temples are sited close to the river, and the express river boats are the pleasantest way to get to these. Taxis are the least stressful way to make short trips from train or boat stations to your final destination.
These will be the bread-and-butter transports for most visitors to Bangkok. But for occasional journeys, I'd say that the tuk-tuks are something to try at least once - an authentic Thai experience you may enjoy. The same goes for the long-tail boats which are not only fun, but invaluable for navigating some of the smaller waterways west of the river. Personally I wouldn't use motorcycle taxis - but then I'm not a biking enthusiast. And within the city, I've only used buses in the company of my Thai girlfriend who knows what she's doing. (I like to know what I'm doing and I don't like getting lost).
For day trips out of Bangkok, escorted tours may well be the best option. Otherwise, air-conditioned buses or trains are the cheapest and most relaxed mode of transport. (And if you go to Pattaya, take the opportunity to try a songthaew - common vehicles here - just to add to the list of transports you've sampled on your visit to Thailand!)
Transit Bangkok Website
The webpage Transit Bangkok is an excellent resource for anyone who wishes to become more familiar with Bangkok's transport system, and particularly the bus routes and other services to and from the airports. The site also shows all train station and bus connections. including an interactive map on which one can input a journey origin and destination. The site will then compute the most practical transport to take. (Even Khlong boats are covered).
References and Links
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I’d Love to Hear Your Comments Thanks, Alun