Bangkok’s notoriously awful traffic can make even a local monk go a bit crazy, and you’ve likely heard horror stories of the legendary gridlock. But don’t let that slow your roll. There are varied ways of getting around the city, including an air-conditioned subway, crazy-cheap taxis, buzzy canal boats, and even motorcycle taxis. Have some patience, remember to pace yourself, and, like the Thais around you, keep a smile on your face. Access to the town’s modern and effective public transport is often a key factor in visitors’ choice of accommodation.
By BTS -- The Bangkok Transit System (BTS) is called "rot fai fa" by Thais, which translates as "skytrain" -- an apt description. It opened in 1999 and is the best way for the able-bodied to get around Bangkok. Sadly, its lack of elevators makes it unsuitable for the physically challenged or those who can't cope with lots of stairs. The train system provides good access to Bangkok's commercial centers. The Silom Line runs from Wongwian Yai in Thonburi across the Chao Phraya River at Saphan Taksin (Taksin Bridge), then through the Silom area to Siam Square. The interchange point for the Sukhumvit Line is at Siam BTS, from where the Sukhumvit Line goes north to Chatuchak Weekend Market (at Mo Chit BTS), or east, along the length of Sukhumvit road to On Nut BTS.
Single-journey tickets cost from 16B to 44B. For single trips, it's fairly straightforward to buy tickets at the vending machines that have place names spelled phonetically in English; you can get small change at the information booth as needed. All ticket types let you through the turnstile and are required for exit, so be sure to hang on to them. Grab a one-day pass for 140B which is a time-saver and ideal if you plan to take five or more one-way journeys. Purchase a pass at any BTS ticket booth. The plastic SmartPass, known as a Rabbit Card, can be topped up as you go but this is only useful for travelers staying in Bangkok for a week or more who plan to ride the train multiple times per day. There is a 30B non-refundable fee for the card; buy it at any ticket booth. Hours of operation are daily between 5:15am and midnight. For route details, maps, and further ticket info, check www.bts.co.th.
Children ride for free. But confusingly, a child ticket is defined by the height of the child (90cm or 2-ft 9-in) instead of their age.
By Subway -- Bangkok's Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) has 18 stations. Beginning at Hua Lamphong Train Station, the MRT heads southeast past Lumphini Park before turning north, up to Lad Phrao, and then makes a wiggle westward to Bang Sue. It has a messy and confusing interchange outside the Dusit Thani Hotel, 100m (328 ft.) from Sala Daeng BTS (on Silom Rd.) and also at Asok BTS (on Sukhumvit Rd.) before its terminus near Mo Chit Bus Station in the north and the Chatuchak Weekend Market. Trains run from 5am to midnight and the system uses small plastic discs or stored-value Smart Passes, which, like the BTS Sky Smart Pass, are swept over sensors. Ticket prices vary by distance and cost 16B to 42B. A 1-day pass costs 120B, while a 3-day pass costs 230B.
The Skytrain and MRT are two separate entities, and while there have been talks of creating a universal card that works with both systems, it currently isn’t available. The BTS and MRT share three connection points: Sala Daeng and Silom, Asok and Sukhumvit, and Mo Chit and Chatuchak.
By Public Riverboats -- Efficient and scenic, but not so comfortable, the public riverboats on the Chao Phraya are a great way to get around the sites in the city center and are a remarkable window into local life. Most sightseers will board at Central Pier, down the steps from Saphan Taksin (Taksin Bridge) BTS. The major stops going upstream from Saphan Taksin are Tha Ratchawong (for Chinatown), Tha Thien (near Wat Po), and Tha Chang (near the Temple of the Emerald Buddha).
The tourist boats operated by the Chao Phraya Express Boat Co. (tel. 02623-6001; www.chaophrayaboat.co.th) offer the most relaxed way to travel along this busy river. These steady, wide-bodied vessels are huge and have plenty of seats and make regular stops along the river. Microphone-equipped guides explain in English about the sites you pass. The last boat leaving Taksin Bridge is at 4pm. Short trips start at 18B, but you can also buy an all-day pass, which includes a map showing all piers and nearby attractions, for 150B. This allows you to hop off and on at will. Boats take about 30 minutes to go from Taksin Bridge to Banglampoo.
Cross-river ferries are small ferries that run only from the east bank to the west, so they're useful for getting to such places as Wat Arun, Klong San Market, or Patravadi Theater. They cost about 3B each way.
By Canal Boat -- Travel by a canal boating is about as local as transportation can get in Bangkok. It’s a fun if somewhat odorous way to beat rush-hour traffic, allowing you to cross Bangkok from a starting point close to the Grand Palace and trek across to Sukhumvit through the commercial heart of the city. A narrow, dirty canal, Klong Saen Saep, runs the length of Phetchaburi Road, with stops in central Bangkok (and all the way to Thonglor, after a change at Krung Kasem Road). These long, low boats are designed to fit under bridges and have tarps that are raised and lowered by pulleys to protect passengers from any toxic splashes. Rides start at just 14B. Board the boats just north of Wat Mahathat. These canal buses really zip along and churn up a stink, but they offer a unique perspective on the last vestiges of what was once called the “Venice of the East,” and taking one gets you through central Bangkok without having to inhale noxious bus fumes or endure motionless traffic.
By Chartered Longtail Boat -- Private boats are a great way to see the busy riverside area and to tour the narrow canals of neighboring Thonburi, though you might want to pack a pair of earplugs for the experience. Boat charters are available at any pier. You can wave one down and, within seconds, you'll be greeted by the shouts of operators. But it's more convenient and probably safer to arrange trips at the riverfront kiosk at River City or at the Grand Palace (tel. 02225-6179). If you want a guide, check for one with a TAT license, as you're less likely to be overcharged. Trips of varying length cost up to 1,000B per hour, per boat -- though drivers will try to get more. Be specific about destinations and times before you agree to one.
By Public Bus -- Bangkok buses are very cheap, frequent, and fairly fast, but a little bit confusing and not user-friendly in terms of helpful ticket takers, or simply marked routes and stops. There are big blue buses with air-conditioned routes and also cheaper red or small green ones (non-air-conditioned). Anyone with asthma or respiratory conditions would do well to avoid these fume-filled tin cans. You'll need to be especially careful of pickpockets on buses, too.
The most practical air-conditioned routes are A1 (looping from the Grand Palace area to Rama IV Rd., Siam Square, and then east down Ploenchit and Sukhumvit roads), A2 (running a loop through the Business District [Bangrak] area along Silom and Surawong roads), A3 (connecting the Dusit area near the zoo and Khao San Rd. before crossing the Chao Phraya), and A8 (running the length of Rama I, Ploenchit, and Sukhumvit roads). Fares are collected onboard -- try to have exact change. Fares are cheap, between 12B and 30B.
By Taxi -- Taxis are everywhere in this city -- except, of course, during a change of shift (3-4:30pm) and in heavy rain. But when they do appear, they are very affordable. Just flag them down (you can hail taxis along any road at any time, or join queues in front of hotels and shopping malls), and always insist that drivers use the meter. At night, especially around Patpong and the Oriental Hotel, stationary taxis will try to fleece passengers with demands for an extortionately high flat fare. Let these sharks be, and opt for flagging one down that's already traveling along the main road.
Taxis charge a 35B flag fare which covers the first minute; thereafter, it is about 5B per kilometer. Most Thai drivers do not speak English or read maps, so it's good to have your hotel concierge write out any destination in Thai.
Drivers rarely carry change. The best you will get is change from 100B notes, but drivers habitually claim that they have no change in the hope of getting a bit extra. Tipping is not necessary, but a small tip is appreciated.
By Car & Driver -- You'd have to be a certified lunatic to drive yourself around Bangkok: Generally anarchic traffic, seas of cavalier motorbikes recklessly breaking every rule, and aggressive tactics by (sometimes amphetamine-fueled) cabbies and truck drivers are the norm. If you're in search of your own wheels, it is best to hire a car with a driver. Reputable companies provide sedans or minivans with drivers who know the city well, some of whom speak English. They also offer the option of an accompanying tour guide -- professionals or students who can take you around each sight. Major rental companies such as Avis and Hertz offer chauffeured cars for roughly 1000B per hour.
By Tuk-Tuk -- As much a national symbol as the elephant, the tuk-tuk (named for the sound) is a small three-wheeled, open-sided vehicle powered by a motorcycle engine. It is noisy, smelly, and incredibly cramped for long legs but definitely provides an adventure, especially for first-time visitors to Thailand. They're not recommended for long hauls or during rush hour -- if you get stuck behind a bus or truck you'll be dealing with unpleasant exhaust fumes and the resulting migraines. Tuk-tuks are also deathtraps in the event of an accident (and the drivers tend to be a bit kamikaze), so avoid using them on highways. For short trips off highways, during off-peak hours, though, they're convenient. All tuk-tuk fares are negotiated, usually beginning at 50B for foreigners on short trips. Bargain very hard, but know that you'll always pay 100% more than locals.
A warning: Tuk-tuk drivers are notorious for trying to talk travelers into shopping trips or stops at brothels masquerading as massage parlors. They will offer you a very low fare but then dump you at small, out-of-the-way gem and silk emporiums, and overpriced tourist restaurants or brothels. Insist on being taken where you want to go directly or mention the word poleet; it's how Thais pronounce "police."
By Motorcycle Taxi -- On every street corner, packs of drivers in colored, numbered vests stand by to shuttle passengers around the city. Though they get you around fast when you're in a hurry (weaving through traffic jams and speeding down one-way streets the wrong way), they're also incredibly unsafe. These guys don't bother with safety, or insurance, and they stay awake on long shifts with energy drinks such as Red Bull. Use them strictly for short distances (they're popular for short hops to the end of a long soi, or side street). They charge from 20B for a few blocks to 60B for greater distances. Hold on tight and keep your knees tucked in. Crash helmets are mandatory these days -- so insist on one, but know the flimsy head wear on offer will be almost useless in the event of a crash.
On Foot -- In general, Bangkok is not a pedestrian-friendly city, though improvements have been made in the city center with the construction of skywalks. Bangkok sidewalks are a gauntlet of buckled tiles, loose manhole coverings, and tangled (live) wires. The city also suffers greatly from flooding; be on guard and don't wear fancy open shoes in monsoon season. In addition, Bangkok's pedestrian traffic -- particularly in the overcrowded BTS and at rush hour -- moves at a painfully slow amble at best, infuriating folks in a hurry. It's best to go with the flow; otherwise, you'll only aggravate yourself. In commercial areas, street vendors take up precious sidewalk space (except on Mon). When crossing busier streets, look for pedestrian flyovers, or, if you have to cross at street level, find others who are crossing and follow them when they head out into traffic. Unlike in Western countries, crossing lights only serve as suggestions here -- drivers rarely stop to allow pedestrians to cross.
Surfing the Canals
Here's a fun but somewhat odorous way to beat rush-hour traffic, allowing you to cross Bangkok from a starting point close to the Grand Palace and trek back to Sukhumvit through the commercial heart of the city. A narrow, dirty canal, Klong Saen Saep, runs the length of New Phetchaburi Road, with stops in central Bangkok (and all the way to Thong Lor, after a change at Krung Kasem Rd.). These long, low boats are designed to fit under bridges and are fitted with tarps that are raised and lowered by pulleys to protect passengers from any toxic splashes. Rides start at just 8B. Board the boats just north of Wat Mahathat. These canal buses really zip along and churn up a stink, but they offer a unique perspective on the last vestiges of what was once called the "Venice of the East," and taking one gets you back to central Bangkok without having to inhale noxious bus fumes in motionless traffic.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.