When most people think of Bangkok (Krung Thep) and transportation, they will most likely picture tuk-tuks, taxis, scooters, and long-tail boats. For the most part, that is a pretty accurate description of public transportation in Bangkok, and South-East Asia. Most South-East Asian cities depend on individual vehicles to move people around, with the exception of a few metropolises such as Singapore, Kuala Lampur, and Bangkok. Bangkok actually has a pretty exceptional transit system, with a heavy rail subway, elevated light rapid transit (BTS), and extensive bus services. Unfortunately, tourists rarely use these excellent transit systems, and mostly rely on sketchy tuk-tuks and taxis to get around.
I traveled to Bangkok in spring 2011 and I used more transit than most tourists.
TYPES OF TRANSIT
Bangkok has a lot of buses. I took a bus journey in Bangkok one time, quite by accident! During my trip I’d had a few difficulties with rearranging my flights, and at some point I needed to speak with a representative of the airline. The only place I could do so was at the airport, so I went to the airport (without going to catch a flight). Getting there was pretty straightforward, as I got into one of the many different airport shuttle buses operating on Khaosan Road where my hotel was. These airport shuttle buses are pretty convenient for travellers going to the backpacker areas as it is a direct connection for only about 100 baht or so.
It takes about an hour to get to the airport. After I finished my business at the airport, I decide to take a shuttle bus back to my hotel on Khaosan Road. At the airport I got a little lost because I wasn’t actually leaving out of the “departures” area. Normally there’s plenty of signage to get to the shuttle buses, and finding them is a breeze. Eventually I asked an airport attendant, and he pointed me to the “right direction” for the shuttle buses into the city. Eventually I found myself on a shuttle bus going towards the main bus depot for the airport. This shuttle bus is a free service to connect travelers to the transportation area at the airport. While technically correct, it wasn’t where I wanted to go.
Now I was a little flustered, as I hadn’t planned on taking transit from the airport and it was a little late to go back. I was not prepared, I did not have much of a grasp on what transit was like in Bangkok, nor did I know the city very well (or at all). Luckily for me there was a bus depot attendant’s station. I explained to the guy working there where I wanted to go, and he handed me a pre-printed instruction sheet with a small map and information on which buses to take.
Apparently I wasn’t the first lost tourist with no clue where I wanted to go except “Khaosan Road”. I was 100% for sure the only non-Thai person in that depot. There was not a tourist for kilometers, and I did get some funny looks. A very strange woman who spoke very good English but appeared to be homeless spoke to me for some time about random things. Eventually a station police officer spotted her and chased her away. He asked me if I was OK and I said of course, yes, she was just talking!
Although there is a newly built (in 2010) ART rail link to the airport, it does not connect easily to the Khaosan Road area. To get to where I needed to go I had to take bus number 555 (air-conditioned) and transfer to bus number 60 (ordinary) at the At Narong Expressway.
Nowadays the transit data for Bangkok is integrated with Google Maps. My journey looked like this:
Transit time is about 1 hour 30 minute. The route 555 bus was quite modern, comfortable, and new. I was quite impressed that there was a TV with sound on board showing advertisements and information. Most of the time there was K-Pop music blaring, as a K-Pop festival was coming to Bangkok that month. Despite being a large capacity articulated bus, the one I took was jammed to the gills – I had to stand with the locals.
One interesting thing is that the fare collection is done by a person on board. Every time somebody gets on board, the attendant finds you to collect the fare which you pay for in cash. I really have no idea how she managed to keep track of everybody coming and going.
Once again, I was 100% for sure the only non-Thai person on that bus. Lots of stares, and a few people talked to me. After about an hour of travelling on the bus the fare collection lady told me that this was my stop. Right in the middle of the city, in an area that I did not know well, I got off the bus and waited for another. After about 10-15 minutes, the bus that I wanted came by. When this next bus (route 60) got close to Khaosan Road a guy on the bus said:
“Hey do you need to go to Khaosan Road?”
He had made the correct assumption, so I said “Yes!”
“This is your stop!”
That wasn’t so hard, but I got lucky thanks to the help of locals. I had made it back, and had quite the adventure in between. It is absolutely worth it and dirt cheap to take transit from the airport, just make sure to at do at least SOME research first… Next time, I would:
- Not stay on Khaosan road (it’s kind of horrible)
- Take the ARL transit option into the city
The buses in Bangkok are run by the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (BMTA) or a variety of private operators. In all there are around 470 different routes. The newer, air-conditioned buses are made by various Japanese and Korean manufacturers. The older non-air-conditioned buses are being phased out.
Bangkok also has a newly implement BRT system (which I did not get to use) running through the Bangkok CBD.
RAPID RAIL TRANSIT
Bangkok has a fairly extensive rapid rail transit network that, like Tokyo, consists of several different rail systems:
A heavy rail system operated by the Bangkok Metro Public Company, known as the following:
- Metropolitan Rail Transit (MRT)
- The Blue Line
- The Bangkok subway/underground
- The Bangkok metro
- Rotfaifa mahanakhon (metropolitan electric train)
- Rotfai taidin (underground train)
An elevated, automated, light rapid transit system operated by the Bangkok Mass Transit System Public Company Limited known as:
- Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS)
- The Elevated Train in Commemoration of HM the King’s 6th Cycle Birthday
A heavy commuter/express rail line operated by the State Railways of Thailand (SRT) called the Airport Rail Link (ARL).
System map in 2011:
Regrettably, I did not take the MRT or ARL during my stay in Bangkok.
The MRT is currently just one underground standard gauge 21 km line with 18 stations; daily ridership is 240,000. Two extensions are planned and under construction and supposedly there will be a total of 7 lines in the MRT by 2019, including some monorails.
At the time I was not as much of a transit enthusiast as I am now, and actually for going to tourist sites, the subway is not necessary. However, the rail rapid transit that I did use in Bangkok is the BTS.
The BTS is very cool and a quick way to get around town. In 2011 there were two lines operating:
Sukhumvit Line: Mo Chit – On Nut
Silom Line: Sephan Taksin – Wong Wian Yai
Since then the lines have been extended.
Payment is slightly complicated as it is distance based. I took the BTS to get to the Chatuchak weekend market (Mo Chit Station).
This station is only about 5 minutes from the market itself. The Chatuchak market is insane, and probably one of the coolest places I’ve ever been to. If you ever find yourself in Bangkok on a weekend, go to this market, and take the BTS like the locals do. I also got off at the Siam Plaza mall once or twice.
The BTS has around 600,000 users daily and runs Siemens, Bombardier, and Chinese Changchun EMUs on standard gauge tracks. The sleek modern BTS vehicles pass by slum areas, “entertainment” plazas, ancient history, and derelict sky scrapers. The automated system is capable of carrying 40,000 passengers per hour, and is often quite busy. Unlike a lot of Bangkok (certainly Khaosan Road) the BTS vehicles and stations were clean, safe, and user-friendly. There was plenty of English signage as well as Thai. Food and drinks are banned from the BTS and people actually abide by this rule, amazing! I saw quite a few non-Thais while I was travelling on the BTS, certainly a lot more than on the bus.
The third system, the ARL, was opened in December 2010. The system provides a link between the main international airport, Suvarnabhumi (BKK) and the BTS and MRT systems in Bangkok. The trains run on standard gauge tracks and run as express for 150 Baht or Local for 15-45 Baht to Makkasan station.
Although not on a coast, Bangkok has a major river running through it – the Chao-Praya River. For centuries the people of Bangkok have used the river and various canals to transport people and goods. The same goes for now. The privately operated Chao-Praya express boats serve as the main transportation system on the river. The wooden boats are capable of carrying 90-120 people. Forty thousand people a day use the express boat service.
Other boat services include long tail boats which operate over shorter routes.
While not mass transit solutions, smaller private vehicles also make up a huge portion of the publically accessible transit available in Bangkok. Tuk-tuks, taxis, Songthaews (small vans or trucks), cyclos, and even random personal vehicles and motorbikes make up this diverse “fleet”. During my stay in Bangkok and South-East Asia I eventually tried all these different options. Tuk-tuks are extremely fun to ride in, but are definitely dangerous and have a few unfortunate side effects:
You breathe in a lot of pollutants
- The drivers will 100% for sure try to get as much money out of you as possible (if you are not Thai)
- You will be stuck in traffic
Official taxis in Bangkok are quite excellent and very cheap (if and only if you can convince the driver to use the meter). Traffic is perpetually bad and you will sit in the car for a long time. Songthaews are basically just pick-up trucks with seats in the back that circulate on fixed routes. I’d say they are slightly better than taking a tuk-tuk, but not as comfortable as a taxi. Cyclos seem to be only for tourists, and aren’t particularly fast or comfortable, but are pretty fun. Finally, the plethora of random personal vehicles waiting to drive people around can actually be pretty convenient. Usually a team of motorcycle “taxi” drivers hang out around the various BTS and MRT stations waiting for customers. If you live within a kilometer or so they will drive you right to your apartment – as long as you don’t mind sitting on the back of a motorcycle driven by a stranger with no helmet! They charge about 30 Baht (about $1). The motorbike taxis offer a not-bad solution to the “last mile problem” with transit.
Back in 2011, payment across all modes of transportation in Bangkok was usually done in cash. Transfers were not free, nor did it matter as the payment systems were based on distance. For the entire transportation network as a whole, the payment system is very complex as it also depends on mode of travel, distance, and route. The bus fare structure is particularly complex:
Of course, all of these prices seemed very cheap to me. The most you can pay riding a Bangkok bus is 23 Baht, which is about 80 cents.
Since 2012 there has been the option to use a contact-less smart card called the Rabbit Card, initially on the BRT and BTS. Later, users were able to use it on the MRT as well.
For another example, this is the BTS fare structure:
All transit in Bangkok is very inexpensive for western tourists.
Recently I read Jarrett Walker’s book [Human Transit], which complements his extremely popular and professional blog about transit. In his book, Mr. Walker stresses the most important factors that one should look for in a transit system, specifically:
- Speed or Delay
- Presentation (i.e. mapping, wayfinding etc)
GOOD: Diverse multi-modal (train, elevated train, subway, buses, boats, private vehicles), for the most part very clean, new, high-tech
BAD: Over reliant on private vehicles, non-air conditioned buses are dreadful
GOOD: Lots of options available at the airport, BTS, MRT, BRT, and ARL are very frequent, buses are extremely frequent
BAD: Small rapid transit coverage compared to other Asian mega-cities, NO coverage to some popular tourist areas (Khaosan Road), only 4 rapid transit lines in 2011.
GOOD: The BTS stations have lots of maps for finding your way, and plenty of signage and announcements in English and Thai, buses have information displayed on screens
BAD: I actually had a tough time finding maps showing the different transit options together, at the time there was no smart-card option, there is a plethora of buses which do not appear to operate on a grid system
GOOD: Stations were very clean, safe, well-lit, accessible, great English signage, with convenient small shops
BAD: Outside of MRT, MTS or BRT stations, the bus stops are just sides of the road with little passenger amenities which does not make me feel safe
The typical fare for a BTS ride is about 35 Baht ($1.20) and the average salary in Bangkok/Thailand is widely quoted at $7,000 USD/year. According to my algorithm, Bangkok gets 5.4/10 for cost, when compared to a typical fare in New York City. Consider that the fare in Bangkok is around 1/2 of that in New York, yet the average salaries are more than 11 times less.
Bangkok is a wonderful and vibrant city to visit, although I probably wouldn’t want to live there just yet. The perpetually traffic-jammed roads are a huge problem and unfortunately transit infrastructure has not grown in pace with the population of the city. Despite that, there is currently a great variety of transit options in the city and a huge amount of construction happening within the next few years. The additional train lines being constructed all around Bangkok will absolutely transform the city into a very habitable, thriving metropolis. Bangkok is now known for tuk-tuks and taxis, but soon that will be replaced with memories of a useful and modern metro system. If you visit Bangkok make sure to use transit as much as you can. While taxis and tuk-tuks are cheap and comfortable, the transit options are even cheaper and more enjoyable.