Bangkok Travel Guide, Part 2: Getting around Bangkok like a local

The iconic 'tuk-tuk' or Thai rickshaw. — Pictures by CK Lim
The iconic 'tuk-tuk' or Thai rickshaw. — Pictures by CK Lim

BANGKOK, March 22 — Tuk-tuk or taxi-meter? Motosai or river boat? BTS, MRT or ARL? You know you’re in Bangkok when you’re inundated with an avalanche of transportation options.

The trick is to see it as a carnival of choices rather than confusion — oh, the fun you’ll have!

Let’s begin at the beginning: You’ve arrived at the airport — either Suvarnabhumi (BKK) or Don Mueang (DMK) — now how do you get to Bangkok proper where food, shopping and more awaits you?

If you’re at the former, there is an ARL (or Airport Rail Link) train that swiftly brings you to the city centre.

You can get off the ARL at Makkasan station to change to the MRT subway line (via the MRT Phetchaburi station) or at Phaya Thai station to change to the BTS Sky Train line (via the BTS station of the same name).

The MRT and BTS lines are further linked at the popular Sukhumvit MRT/Asoke BTS and Silom MRT/Saladaeng BTS interchanges.

Rush hour at one of Bangkok’s MRT subway stations.
Rush hour at one of Bangkok’s MRT subway stations.

If you arrive at Don Mueang International Airport, there isn’t a direct airport express connection so taking a taxi is the way to go.

Hailing a cab — or as the Bangkokians call it, a taxi-meter — is easy as there are plenty of taxi counters.

Do make sure the taxi driver switches on the meter as some, unfortunately, try to rip off tourists who don’t know better.

This usually isn’t a problem when grabbing a taxi-meter from the airport but can be an issue when hailing one within the city centre.

Most drivers only speak Thai so they’d know in a heartbeat that you’re not a local. If the driver refuses to switch on the meter and quotes a fixed price, just decline politely and wait for another taxi-meter.

Sometimes the challenge isn’t touts but simply locating a taxi-meter, especially during the rush hours.

When hailing a taxi-meter, make sure the driver uses the meter instead of quoting a fixed price.
When hailing a taxi-meter, make sure the driver uses the meter instead of quoting a fixed price.

In such instances, using a ridesharing app can be a good back-up. As a bonus, language is no longer an issue as the driver will rely on the app for directions.

In either case, do prepare enough change as most drivers will not carry a lot of small notes or coins.

One tip I’ve picked up early on during my first few visits to Bangkok is to always carry the business card of my hotel as it will have the name of the hotel and its address written clearly in Thai, with nearby landmarks listed.

Again, most taxi-meter drivers do not speak English, much less read it, so this small act can be a lifesaver.

For shorter distances, two wheels are better than four. Instead of a taxi-meter, hop on a motosai lapjang or motorcycle taxi instead.

'Motosai lapjang' or motorcycle taxi riders waiting for passengers under a makeshift shelter.
'Motosai lapjang' or motorcycle taxi riders waiting for passengers under a makeshift shelter.

You can find them easily, usually at the exits of various office buildings, shopping malls and train stations.

There will be an orderly row of riders in their iconic orange vests, waiting for their next passenger under the shade of a makeshift shelter.

Sometimes there will be a signboard with the most popular destinations nearby listed with their respective fares.

Even if there isn’t one, the motosai riders know their neighbourhoods well and the typical fare ranges from 10 to 30 baht (RM1 to RM4).

Even if they overcharge you slightly for being a visitor — anyone who doesn’t speak Thai is clearly a foreigner to them — it’s still better than being stuck in traffic.

You’re not paying for comfort on a motosai but for convenience as the rider weaves in between other vehicles that are barely crawling.

Sometimes you’re not really in a hurry and want to experience the sights and sounds (not to mention smells as you’d be exposed to the fumes of other vehicles) of the city at your own pace.

Then embrace your tourist status and take a ride in a tuk-tuk, usually a three-wheeler motorised rickshaw. Is there anything more Thai... for tourists, at any rate?

There are thousands of tuk-tuks in Bangkok and the closer you get to touristy areas such as Silom and Siam, the noisier and more flamboyant they get as the tuk-tuk drivers compete to stand out from each other.

Rather than an innocuous tuk tuk sound, these decked-out rickshaws often blast Thai and Western tunes at full blast. What a way to announce your arrival!

Of course, roads aren’t the only means of transportation in the city. Also known as the Venice of the East, Bangkok has many canals and waterways.

In certain districts such as Thonburi, west of the Chao Phraya River, the river and khlong (canal) boats remain a key way of getting around.

In some parts of Bangkok, the fastest way to travel isn’t by land but by boat!
In some parts of Bangkok, the fastest way to travel isn’t by land but by boat!

There are local ferry boats that carry residents from their homes to their workplaces, avoiding the sprawl and gridlock of the roads.

For visitors, a better bet is the tourist boat service. Most board at the Central Pier at Saphan Taksin (also a major BTS station) and disembark along the way, depending on which attractions they wish to visit.

You can pay on the boat rather than queuing for a ticket at the pier. Each single journey costs around 30 baht (RM4), which is generally cheaper than paying for a 150 baht (RM19) one-day ticket unless you really plan on getting on and off multiple times.

Finally, to escape the city and head to other popular regional destinations such as Hua Hin and the Amphawa Floating Market, railway excursions are the way to go.

To escape the city, an excursion on the railway is the way to go.
To escape the city, an excursion on the railway is the way to go.

The main Bangkok Train Station is located at Hua Lamphong, which is easily accessed via MRT.

From here, you can opt for one-day train trips or for those with a lot of time on their hands, enjoy the luxurious pace — three days, two nights — of the Eastern & Oriental Express that links Bangkok to Singapore, stopping at Butterworth and Kuala Lumpur along the way.

However you choose to travel, you’d be sure to see plenty of Bangkok in all her glory and colour. Here, the very act of travelling might well be the best part of the journey.

This is the second in a five-part series about travelling in Bangkok. Read the first part on the best time to visit the city here.

Related Articles