After weeks of navigating the dusty back-roads and long rivers of Laos, arriving in the booming Thai capital of Bangkok felt a little like stepping back to the urban jungle: reliable air conditioning everywhere, internet fast enough to stream movies, and multitudes of megamalls in all their consumerism glory. Our Thai language skills were barely useful as nearly everyone spoke English. We had our first pizza since leaving and made ecstatic “mmmmmmm!!!” noises through the whole meal. We stayed clean and nice-smelling for the longest stretch since leaving. Getting to Bangkok felt like doing a complete 180° compared to our daily life over the past few months. Same same, but very different.
One of the first things we noticed about the City of Life was the abundance of ways to get around. Not since Hong Kong did we have the opportunity to experience mass transit on a city-wide scale: mostly we walk around towns or cities or take tuk-tuks. This was going to be a fun experiment for Life in Transit.
We arrived from Laos by night train into the Hua Lamphong station in central Bangkok. It was by far the nicest train we’ve taken so far with large, comfortable berths with clean sheets (certainly in a completely different category than the night train in China). The train drops you off in the middle of town, in a nice train station reminiscent of some of the train stations I’ve seen in Province, and close enough to walk to the notorious backpackers mecca of Khoa San Road (although we were staying on the other side of town).
We really like tuk-tuks. They are quicker than taxis and exciting when the driver weaves between traffic. The open air cools sweaty skin, and you are in closer contact with the city that from inside a car or bus. Mostly, they are the cheapest way to get around. This is not the case in Bangkok. We were often asked more than double the price of a taxi for the same distance. However, the tuk-tuk drivers generally speak better English than the taxis.
In Barbie-pink or bright green and gold – the colorful taxis of Bangkok are EVERYWHERE! The comfortable cars are in good condition and usually provide a cool haven with blasting air con. If they set the meter, you can get all the way across town for just a couple bucks – cheaper than taking mass transit or a tuk-tuk. The problem is getting one to actually pick you up. Unlike the rest of the city, the taxi drivers often don’t speak or read any English. So telling them you where you want to go, or even showing them a map won’t do any good and about half the time they’ll just speed away in search of a simpler fare. Even when we requested our Thai hotel concierge to hail us a cab, if we weren’t going in the ‘right’ direction (read: close to big hotels or the airport), they just shook their heads and drove on. Arm yourself with persistence and a few Thai words if you want to travel by cab.
Our hotel was located near the giant megamall complexes the pepper the center of Bangkok. Rather than crowding the narrow sidewalks in the hot sun, we took the shaded and picturesque, pedestrian-only Skywalks. Elevated from the traffic, we were able to watch the city from above as we ambled between hip places to spend our baht.
Clean, efficient and high-tech: the Skytrains are pleasant elevated commuter trains with attractive views of the city. You can easily and cheaply cross the entire city, gaping at the skycrapers, green parks and wide river along the way. Bring a sweater if you plan to take it for more than 10 minutes – the air-con is on full blast.
Only a few lines cross the city, but they can quickly get you to some interesting places like Chinatown or the train station. Definitely recommended during rush hour to avoid the insane car traffic.
Some of these old buses from the 60’s are charming specimens that rumble across town with open window and oscillating fans. Others are more modern with automatic doors and air-con. This is the best way to experience a commute with locals, but only if you can read the bus stops in Thai!
We nearly missed our out-going night train by foolishly taking a taxi during rush hour on a Friday night. After a few minutes of stop and go, the highway basically turned into a parking lot and we didn’t move for about 15 minutes. I worriedly communicated our train time to our driver, who made a ‘you’ll never make it on time’ expression and then hailed us two moto-taxis – those motorbike daredevils with incredible skill and a death wish who are immune to traffic. We awkwardly climbed on the back with our large bags, and gripped the bike as the driver tore off – weaving between cars, driving on the sidewalks, blowing past pedestrians with only centimeters to spare. By some miracle, we made it in one piece and with 5 minutes to hop on the train.
Among the several choices of river boats on the Chao Phraya, we loved the river taxi – the basic commuter boat that is also favored by local Thais. It costs mere pennies and you get the same experience as the more costly ‘tourist boats’. Just be ready to jump from the dock: they only pause for a few seconds to let you on or off.
And for your enjoyment, a custom time-lapse video of Life in Transit in Bangkok.