Expat woman Natalie Compton shares the tips on getting around Bangkok that she wished she knew before moving to the city.
When living in a foreign country, even the simplest of tasks can be extremely challenging. As a farang with limited Thai language skills, I’ve had my fair share of frustrating moments trying to get where I need to go. Though after a few months, and while I’m still far from an expert, I’ve begun to crack the code of Thai transportation. There are many exceptions that vary from situation to situation, but here are some tips on how to get around Bangkok.
Bangkok taxis have a number of pros and cons to keep in mind when choosing how to get around. While metered cabs are wonderfully inexpensive, the city’s traffic can offset the perks of the affordable ride. It can be tempting to take a taxi to enjoy the pleasure of sitting in a comfortable, air conditioned car, but a ride may take hours depending on traffic.
The joys of taxis are also countered if you get sucked into a ride sans meter. One way to avoid this is to communicate with the driver before getting into the car. Open the passenger’s seat door and tell the driver where you’d like to go. If he agrees, get into the car and see if he switches on the meter. If not, ask him to turn it on politely. A major point to remember is to always remain calm and show respect to taxi drivers. Many people can tell you a horror story about taxi drivers mugging customers, so kindness is key.
If you know you are going far away or to a touristy destination, or if it’s raining, it is even more important to ask for the meter before you get into the car. Be patient – many cab drivers may say no, but you’ll eventually find someone who will turn the on the meter. The same goes for your trip home. If you are leaving a tourist-heavy location like Kao San Road or the Grand Palace, avoid getting into the first available taxis. These are more likely to refuse using the meter and will charge you exorbitant rates. Instead, head a block or two away before hailing a car.
Even if you can find a taxi that will turn on the meter, conveying where you need to go can be a struggle. Don’t assume having an address will get you to your destination. Know major nearby landmarks like BTS stations, hotels or hospitals to help explain where you’re going.
Traveling by motorcycle taxis (in Thai: motersai) can be daunting for expats new to Bangkok, but it will save you time and money if you overcome the anxiety. In traffic, getting around by car can add significant time – think hours – to your journey. Motorcycle taxis cut through Bangkok’s notorious traffic by expertly weaving through the standstill of cars. My advice is : Don’t be afraid to get to know the motorcycle taxi drivers near your home.
Motorcycle taxis are best used for shorter distances, as the drivers tend to work in certain neighborhoods exclusively. A 5-10 minute ride will cost a mere 20-40 baht, but fares to further destinations can be negotiated before getting on the bike. Drivers usually have limited English skills, so be prepared to explain where you need to go in Thai or have a map ready. If you know the spot is nearby, don’t talk about money initially. Your driver will let you know the cost when you arrive, and asking ahead of time will signal that you’re new in town.
When riding, avoid looking like a tourist by holding on to the bike seat handle instead of the driver himself. My first few rides were spent gripping my drivers intimately around the waist until I noticed that Thais rarely touched their chauffeurs. Instead, they balance gracefully on the back, sometimes without even holding on to the bike at all. Ladies, sit side saddle on the motorcycle with your legs on the left side.
Don’t be frightened if your motorcycle taxi drives against the flow of traffic or weaves through extremely narrow spaces; these guys are professionals and know exactly what they’re doing. For a safer ride, ask for a helmet or bring your own helmet along.
Bangkok is not what you would call a walkable city like San Francisco or Paris. Tiny sidewalks full of food carts and loose tiles act more like obstacle courses than walkways. One of the largest cities in Asia, Bangkok is not manageable by foot alone. You’re probably going to spend more time walking to and from BTS stations than between neighborhoods. Leave walking for exploring rather than a way to get around.
With 34 stations along two lines (Silom and Sukhumvit), the BTS offers riders an accessible way to get through the heart of Bangkok. The skytrain is affordable, air conditioned, and pretty reliable. You may run into trouble during major rush hours when you have to cram aggressively into the train to get a spot. Don’t be afraid to smash yourself into the car even if there seems to be no room; this is the norm in Bangkok. If there’s simply not enough space, another train will arrive in about ten minutes.
To ride the BTS, you must purchase a ticket at the station before heading up to the platform. If you’re staying in Bangkok for a while, save yourself the hassle of buying a ticket each time by purchasing a Rabbit card from a BTS station attendant. You can either purchase a set number of rides or put a cash value on your card. Rides expire within 30 days, while cash value is valid for two years. If you’re riding long distances, purchasing set trips may be more beneficial to you. A bonus of the Rabbit card is that you can use your credit at a number of retailers like Tesco and Starbucks.
The MRT is a lot like the BTS but underground. Avoid looking like a tourist by knowing the round token you get from the ticket machine is to be tapped on the turnstile upon entry. Don’t follow my lead and search relentlessly for a token slot until an MRT official has to come rescue you. Only when you are leaving the MRT station do you put your token in a slot. The MRT is a great way to get right to the Hua Lamphong train station.
Tuk tuks are not ideal for general transportation. Watch traffic for a while and you’ll see that tuk tuks tend to be taken by Thais with a lot of groceries or giddy tourists. A tuk tuk ride is definitely fun, but it has a number of drawbacks. First, the open air atmosphere ride can be nice, but it lacks the comfort of an air conditioned taxi while putting you in the thick of Bangkok pollution. Secondly, a tuk tuk won’t get you from A to B much faster than a taxi, as it can’t weave through traffic like a motorcycle taxi can. Lastly, tuk tuks are one of the most expensive ways to travel as a farang, unless you’re a hard bargainer. If you look like a foreigner, you are likely to get an inflated price quote, making the kitschy ride cost more than metered cabs, motorcycle taxis, or public transportation. Tuk-tuks should be reserved for fun, but remember to negotiate your price beforehand.