One of the best parts about living in Bangkok is how easy it is to get everywhere in the city. Bangkok has notoriously awful traffic, but thanks to major investments in infrastructure and creative modes of transportation, that’s not something you have to worry about. Let me show you all of the ways you can zip around my favorite capital:
1. The Sky Train (known as the BTS):
The BTS is by far the best way to get around. It’s very cheap (with prices in 2014 maxing out at 50 baht a trip, or $1.50) and links you to most major attractions in the city. It consists of two major lines, the Sala Daeng line (National Stadium -Wang Wien Yai) and the Mo Chit Line (Bearing – Mo Chit). I took the BTS to work and back every morning when I lived downtown. While it can get extremely crowded during high traffic hours (730-930am and 430-7pm), the trains arrive every 2-5 minutes so you’re never waiting long.
The BTS is wonderful for tourists because the maps are very user friendly and simple. Also, it connects in two different locations to the MRT (the underground) and it also connects to the Airport Link. So, from any BTS or MRT stop, you can connect directly to the international airport. That’s pretty awesome.
The Ministry of Transport is always building news lines for the BTS to extend it’s reach, most recently a project taking it across the Chao Phraya river. When they do open a new line, rides are dirt cheap as they try to promote traffic along that route. The last time they opened a new line, you could ride for 10 baht ($0.30) to the end of the line.
My favorite thing about the BTS is that you can purchase a Rabbit Card for about 50 baht ($1.60) which allows you to load up on trips ahead of time and skip the long ticket lines. It is extremely economical if you take the BTS regularly because you can buy trips which expire within 30 days but are individually cheaper than getting a ticket each day. For example, let’s say you have to travel from Bearing to Mo Chit everyday. That trip is usually around 52 baht (as of April 2014), but if you purchase multiple trips, it can be as low as 21 baht a ride ($1 cheaper). You just have to use all of your trips in 30 days (very doable if you are riding it to and from work). I loved my rabbit card as it saved me a ton of cash and time!
2. The Metro (known as the MRT)
The MRT is really popular with locals because it’s slightly cheaper than the BTS and is usually less crowded. It also services more middle-class living and shopping areas (and two huge outdoor markets that are very popular with locals). The MRT meets up with the BTS twice so you can get nearly anywhere by hopping on the MRT. I’ve also found that it’s cheaper to live right by an MRT station than a BTS station. Just like the BTS, you can get a card that allows you to load up on rides and skip the ticket lines. It also gives you a discount per ride, but since I never had one myself, I couldn’t tell you how big of a discount it is.
3. Moto Taxis
One of the most popular modes of transport with the locals, moto taxis are everywhere in Bangkok. With their eye catching orange vests, Thais driveres moto around their designated ‘zones’ waiting to be flagged down for a ride. While prices are agreed upon prior to every ride, there are general understandings that go into negotiating a price. Moto taxis are best for short jaunts because you usually don’t get a helmet, and drivers don’t like to go too far outside their zone.
Moto taxis are most commonly found at BTS exits so that you can be taken right to your destination. If the trip is NOT during peak hours and is under a mile or two, it’s usually 20-30 baht. If it’s over a mile or two and through heavy traffic areas, it’s 40-50 baht.
Here are some general tips for arranging a moto taxi ride:
- Never get on a moto taxi without agreeing to the price.
- Always approach a group of taxis and let them decide who will take you (they have a certain order they go through)
- Never get on a taxi with someone who seems untrustworthy (too young, over-aggressive, seemingly drunk)
- If you’re a woman, always sit side saddle, especially if you have a dress or skirt on. Use the ridges on the side of the seat to hold yourself steady, and use the back pegs to rest your feet on.
- Never touch the driver. I once lost my balance and grabbed the driver’s shoulder and he was very weirded out by it.
- Don’t ever believe a driver who says they don’t have change. They should ALWAYS be able to break a hundred baht bill (500 or 1000 are less likely, but a 500 should usually be doable).
- Don’t get taken for a ride on costs (heh). If your driver tries to tell you it’s 60 baht when you know every day you only pay 30, then they are trying to overcharge you because you are white. This is a common practice in Bangkok because they are hoping/assuming you don’t know how much it is supposed to cost. Just say no and move on to the next group.
- Expect increases in price during high traffic times. If you are catching a moto at 8am and they charge you 10-20 surplus, it’s because they can. If you say no, someone else will hop on who’s willing to pay.
- The usual signal for catching a moto is to put your arm out at a 45 degrees angle and pat the air downwards (this means ‘come here’). The Thai signal for ‘come here’ is the opposite of the US signal. Whereas we open our palm upwards and bend our fingers toward our palm, Thais flip their hand so their palm is facing downwards and bend their fingers to the palm. You get used to it over time (and you hale a taxi in the same way).
- If you try to ride with three people on the moto including the driver, expect a surplus. If it costs 40 baht for just you, it will probably cost 70 for two passengers. I generally don’t recommend two people on the bike unless you are comfortable with riding motos and the possible imminence of death (remember, no helmets!)
Riding a moto through Bangkok without a helmet is extremely dangerous, but it’s also extremely common. The benefit of a moto taxi is they can weave through traffic and usually get you somewhere in half the time of a normal taxi, but the risk is serious injury. I took over 100 moto rides in Bangkok and have never been in an accident. However, if you feel unsafe or unsure, then just take a taxi as they aren’t much more expensive. Everyone should decide for themselves what they are comfortable with.
4. Regular Taxi
Whenever I used to think of taxis, I always considered them way outside of my price range. The great thing about Bangkok is that taxis are actually an option. You could easily ride in a taxi for over an hour and it would cost under $15. They are a great deal if there is more than one person riding with you, and can often be cheaper than 2 or 3 people each paying to take the BTS individually. Taxis are also heavily air conditioned, so when the option is to walk home or take a 30 baht taxi (their starting meter price as of April 2014), it’s pretty enticing.
The only downside to taxis is that you can get stuck in horrendous traffic. My boyfriend and I once sat in traffic with bags and bags of our stuff (we were moving) for over 2 hours in a taxi. Our destination was less than 10 miles away! Luckily, being stuck in a taxi makes a great opportunity for practicing or learning Thai, and getting to know some local Bangkokians. I’ve met some wonderful taxi drivers in my time in Bangkok, and they are often great resources of information (where to get a good price on motorbikes, the best restaurants for Khao Soi, where the good street carts are, etc.).
Here are some basic tips to make you a taxi hopping pro:
- Call a taxi just like a moto taxi: Get that hand out, palm facing down, and do the upside-down ‘come here’ by flexing your fingers towards the palm.
- Tell the driver where you want to go. While Bangkok taxis are, by law, supposed to take you anywhere, the rule of thumb in Bangkok is that they can turn you down. While it gets really annoying, also know that a lot of those guys are near the end of their shifts and might not want to take you across town in traffic when they are near home. Cut them some slack.
- If a taxi driver agrees to take you where you want to go, next make SURE that they are going to use the meter. Do this by saying ‘mee-tuh’ (it’s the Thai word for meter, which is basically saying meter with a Thai accent – Thinglish at it’s finest). There is a huge problem in Bangkok with foreigners getting their meters turned off or them not being used at all. If a driver tries to give you a flat price, never do it. You should ALWAYS use the meter. If they won’t do it, then get out. There will always be another taxi around the corner.
- When I’m in my ‘tourist’ getup, I like to follow our route on OffMaps or google maps to make sure I’m not getting taken for a ride. That only ever happened once in 2 years.
- Taxi drivers will always ask you whether you want to take the express ways or not. They are usually much faster, but also more expensive because you are required to pay the toll. Just say ‘ok’ or ‘chai’ which means yes, or ‘mai chai’ which means no. They will adjust their route.
- If you do take a toll road, be prepared to pay the toll. You will either pay it in the moment, or the driver will pay it and tack it on at the end. Just remember how much it was. It says on the little black box on your way through the gate.
- In general, taxi drivers are very nice. There are some out there who are looking to scam anyone they can, but don’t assume this is the rule. Always be nice, but alert, and don’t get aggressive unless you are really sure you’re being screwed over. If you think you’re getting scammed, then ask to get out immediately. You should still pay what you owe, but end the ride before it adds up (the rate doesn’t go up until after the first 5 km, so you’ll know before it’s too expensive).
- If you know even a tiny bit of Thai, use it. The more comfortable you seem, the less likely you are to get scammed.
5. The Tuk-Tuk
There’s only one thing to know about tuk-tuks: NEVER, EVER TAKE ONE. Sorry, did I make that clear enough? I repeat, for the love of god, NEVER take a tuk-tuk. I have never, in two years of living in Bangkok speaking pretty fluent Thai, been offered a reasonable price for a tuk-tuk ride.
Tuk-tuk drivers always scam foreigners as a rule of thumb because you have to agree on the price of your ride*. Even if you grew up in Bangkok, if you’re white, you’re going to get scammed. They seem fun and ‘cultural’, but they are a gimmick. A driver will often offer to drive you somewhere for 20 baht and then take you to their ‘friends’ shop where you have to buy something or they force you to pay for the ‘full’ price of the ride, often 400 or 500 baht. It’s absolutely ridiculous and a huge blight on Thai tourism in Bangkok. Please don’t ever get in one, they will charge you 10-50 times the amount they would charge a Thai for the same ride.
*Note: This is specific to Bangkok. If you’re in Chiang Mai or Southern Thailand, tuk-tuks can be a great way to travel. But in Bangkok they are not a safe or reliable means of transportation given the frequency of scamming.
6. Water taxis
Water taxis are a lot of fun and often connect to places that can’t be reached by other modes of transport. The water taxi system is a much older tradition in Bangkok, where canals were once the only means of getting around. Nowadays you can pay a few cents to ride through stinky canals crammed in with tons of Thais and tourists and hope you don’t get any of that water sprayed in your face. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable! I highly recommend everyone do it at least once to get a view of the city from the canals. Also, no traffic!
There are also larger water taxis that take you up and down the Chao Phraya river. These taxis connect to major tourist sites like Wat Pho, China Town, the Flower Market, and Wat Arun. Be careful not to buy the All-Day Pass, and instead wait for the non ‘Tourist boat’ (the one without the sign reading ‘Tourist Boat’). It will save you a lot of money, costing less than a dollar rather than $10 or $12.
7. Public Buses
Public buses in Thailand are dirt cheap, especially if you take the none air-conditioned ones (we’re talking 20 cents a ride). The only difficulty is, there isn’t a lot of information online about buses, so finding a ‘route’ for your journey will be really difficult on your own. The best way to find bus routes is to ask a local or an expat who knows the area well.
If you’re only in Bangkok for a few days or weeks I wouldn’t recommend attempting it on your own. Knowing a little bit of Thai is also a pre-requisite if you’re not sure where your stop is. You also tell the bus attendant where you’re going so they know how much to charge you, and their English is usually extremely limited.
Do you have any questions? Did I forget anything important? Let me know in the comments!