Getting from A to B in BKK: travel and transport truths in Bangkok
As world cities go, Bangkok can be a tough nut to crack. Busy, noisy and hot as hell, it lures you in with the stunning temples, the languorous Chao Phraya river and the lip-smackingly good street food, before spitting you out into a smoggy haze of traffic jams, scam artists and pot-holed pavements. Most of my days in Bangkok saw me staggering back to my accommodation by around 4pm: dusty, sweaty and in sore need of a shower and a lie down. Half of the challenge is getting around (who am I kidding? 99% of the challenge is getting around), as the city’s streets regularly descend into gridlock, and the tendrils of its public transport system are somewhat limited in their reach. With these things in mind, here are a few of the issues that I encountered – some of which I fully expected, and others which took me by surprise – in the hope that they might help you navigate the urban jungle that is the City of Angels.
Taxis probably won’t use meters. It kind of doesn’t matter.
I’m one for doing my research, and before we went to Bangkok all I seemed to read was “don’t get in a taxi that doesn’t have a meter!”. “Taxis SHOULD use their meters – don’t get in one that doesn’t have one!”. “INSIST your taxi driver turns on the meter!” Etc, etc. So – fully prepared – I arrived in Bangkok, determined that, by God, these Thai taxi drivers would be using their meters. The reality however was far from this, and eventually I realised that… it really didn’t matter. Sometimes we hailed a cab and found to our jubilation that the meter was beaming away at us, ready to go. Other times we peered into the cab and – surprise surprise – no meter. In this eventuality, not being complete noobs, we’d normally try and haggle on price. I’m sure at this point any Bangkok locals or long-term residents will start nodding and laughing knowingly, because we will have paid over the odds, and yes – I’m sure we did. It didn’t seem to matter where we were going – most of our journeys in the city centre were “100THB”. But to put this into some kind of context, this is a little over £2. If we took the time to haggle this down, we were essentially saving ourselves somewhere in the region of 30p to 60p. Now, I know for some, every little saving is necessary, especially if you are travelling or backpacking long-term, and that’s fine. But if you don’t have a stringent budget and just want to get back to your accommodation as fast as possible because your t-shirt is stuck to your back and your shoes are rubbing, is it worth hassling a taxi driver over pricing, or whether his meter is really broken?
We also found that in some parts of the city, taxis were surprisingly thin on the ground, and some didn’t want to stop for us – even if they were empty. With that in mind, if a taxi (a) came our way and (b) actually stopped, we weren’t about to get sniffy over the meter, especially when I really don’t begrudge giving away an extra 50p or so. I did feel uneasy about it at times – I was blatantly ignoring all the advice I’d read, which surely made me a Bad and Gullible Traveller, and I was also undoubtedly contributing to the continuation of the meter scam – but equally I’m all about the practicalities, and it’s frustrating to let taxi after taxi zoom off without you. I suspect many of our difficulties with regard to the meters were also because we were ‘farangs’ – many of the drivers we quibbled with over this just drove off, as there will always be a couple more bumbling tourists down the road. If you don’t like the idea of haggling, would like the reassurance of a meter, are very very patient, or are looking after your pennies then that’s fine – but don’t give in to Meter Guilt if you have to let this one slide.
Taxi drivers can’t read maps.
Now, this one I had no warning of, and I think it’s quite an important one to mention. Given that most London cabbies know the city like the back of their hand – or, these days, have a handy sat nav for when their memory fails them – I’d kind of assumed taxi drivers in Bangkok would have a similar encyclopaedic knowledge. Or, at least if not of every single suburb, they’d probably know the centre quite well. Or, at least if they didn’t know the city centre, they could probably recognise it on a map. Or, at least if they couldn’t read a map, they could read a street address. Written in Thai.
Oh, how wrong I was.
Our accommodation – the glorious Loy La Long boutique hotel – was admittedly tucked away in a rather obscure place, but as usual we were well prepared and had various directions and maps, all in Thai, but to no avail. Some taxi drivers gave it their best shot, but others point blank refused to even to let us in the car. I came to realise that this may have been more due to embarrassment on their part rather than unkindness, and for that I was sorry. Once we got to know where the hotel was for ourselves, as well as a few prominent landmarks in the local area, it wasn’t quite as difficult – or at least not as bad as when we were dropped off in the wrong place straight from the airport late at night. However, I was still totally unprepared for how difficult just getting a taxi, and then getting said taxi to drive to your chosen location, would be.
(I’d probably still get a taxi though).
Despite these gripes however, getting a taxi direct to your destination – wherever it might be in the city – is probably still your most straightforward option. Yes, the traffic can be insane, and some careful thought might be needed if you are pushed for time or trying to catch a flight, for instance, but realistically most transport options in Bangkok are manic during rush hour. When we returned to the city after a couple of weeks island hopping, we decided to catch the Airport Link train back into the centre – and sardines in a tin can doesn’t even come close. Our two huge suitcases only added to the fun. I genuinely thought we wouldn’t be able to get off at our stop because of the sheer mass of bodies between us and the door. Even outside of peak times, the limits of Bangkok’s other public transport options – the MRT Subway and BTS Skytrain – can become evident. Although very handy and efficient if you are travelling around the tight knot of the commercial centre that the lines tend to cater to, options beyond that are rather limited and coverage in many parts of the city is essentially non-existent.
Combining public transport with a taxi ride also isn’t as easy as you might think. Heading out for a massage at Baan Sabai spa it seemed logical to us (looking at a map) to catch the MRT from Hua Lamphong near our accommodation and then jump off at the Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre and hail a taxi. We got there, found that the ‘main road’ on the map was basically some kind of major highway with cars zipping past, and not a taxi in sight. By contrast, the trips where we did just take a taxi direct from A to B were much less hassle – no queuing to buy tickets, dragging luggage on to trains or endless walking to change platform or Skytrain line. The best way to get round most of these issues, as we eventually found, was to ask others to book a taxi for us in advance where possible. Our hotel was of course always willing to do this, but given enough notice we also found that upmarket restaurants and businesses like tailors, for example, would also be happy to book you a taxi for your onward travel. (These taxis almost always had meters too – bonus).
Everywhere is further away and harder to get to than you think.
This is a mistake I make in a lot of cities. Euston is only five tube stops away? Yeah I’ll make my train. The airport is on a direct line from the station near my hotel? Easy peasy. The nearest metro station is a five minute walk? No problem. Essentially, anywhere that has some kind of transport infrastructure always looks so easy – on a map, it’s simple to walk a few blocks, or to change train lines at that intersection. In some cities however, things are really not as easy as they look, and Bangkok is one of those pesky tricksters where everything is a lot harder, hotter and more complex than it seems. In addition to some of the difficulties posed by taxi drivers and public transport, walking anywhere in Bangkok is no mean feat (and I was really tempted to make a pun here about ‘feet’/’feat’ but I’ll resist. You’re welcome). The pavements are not in the best shape, and sometimes disappear altogether – quite literally. I still have a mental image of the path we used to walk down from our hotel to get to the nearest BTS station, where part of the pavement around a manhole cover had crumbled away into what I’m guessing was a sewer beneath. Stepping on any kind of drain cover or manhole cover always makes me feel a bit funny, as if I might fall through it, but in Bangkok this nightmare was suddenly very real! As in any major city that’s hot, noisy and crowded, it can also feel like you make very slow progress on foot – and if you want to really get your adrenaline pumping, just attempt to cross a busy road. The joys of trying to cross at the intersection opposite Hua Lamphong train station is another memory that’s
seared into my brain stayed with me.
Flip-flops are a flop.
Following on neatly from the previous point – not only did I learn that Bangkok’s pavements can be a fearsome, rugged terrain, I also very quickly learnt that flip-flops are not the best footwear in which to tackle them. If you’re anything like us, your first few days in a new city are when you ambitiously aim to cram in all the highlights, try to soak up as much of the new culture and location as possible, and inevitably walk miles in the process. (Ok, I’ll be honest. I set a strict itinerary and brisk pace. My other half might mumble something about being ‘dragged along’). But anyway – sightseeing in Bangkok involves a fair amount of walking; just covering the Grand Palace is a sizeable task on a hot day. After our first day in Bangkok, my left foot was swollen beyond belief, and my flip-flops were dumped in the bin. (I don’t know whether the ibuprofen we got in Thailand was stronger than what we have here, but it was my goodness was it welcome). As much as I love living in flip-flops, my tip for busy sightseeing days would be to go for comfortable trainers that are worn in and preferably quite loose – there’s nothing like a hot climate to make your feet randomly swell up to the next shoe size – and don’t forget to pair these with a super cool bum-bag. (I’m joking. For the love of God don’t do the bum-bag thing).
The highs and lows of tuk tuk travel.
I’m going to be honest. And this might be controversial. But I love a good tuk tuk ride. (There, I said it). Tuk tuks are at once a joy and a curse: if you think it’s difficult to get a good honest taxi driver with a good honest meter, try getting a tuk tuk driver who isn’t going to rip you off, or run one of Bangkok’s many scams past you. In many ways, tuk tuks are absolutely brilliant. For Westerners, they are one of the ultimate emblems of South East Asia: colourful tuk tuks darting in between traffic and cheekily beeping their horns immediately evoke some of the exotic chaos of cities in the Far East, as opposed to our much more sanitised modes of transport, and the joys of health and safety (yawn). They are usually up there on any visitor’s ‘to-do’ list, even if only subconsciously. And a fast ride in a tuk tuk is an absolute rush – there’s something about the open air and being able to almost reach out and touch other vehicles, or hear the noises on the street, that immediately situates you in ‘the present’.
Because most tourists can’t resist a spin in a tuk tuk however, they are the ultimate trap, and boy don’t they know it. One desperate morning when were in a rush to get to the station, and without a taxi in sight, we flagged down a tuk tuk and arranged for him to take us the rest of the way. Once we set off however, he started saying something about fuel, and that he needed us to do something or other for him to get a cheaper price. In all honesty, we had no idea what he was telling us (details were thin on the ground) but at this point we were still driving towards the station, so rather bemusedly, we smiled and nodded. At this point we peeled off in the opposite direction, as he tried to take us to a shop. We immediately clicked, and asked him to either take us to the station (we were now running very late…) or to just drop us off. So, we found ourselves unceremoniously dumped on the side of the pavement. Quite why he couldn’t have just taken us to the station and had his fee for that I don’t know, but obviously richer pickings could be found elsewhere. So, the moral of the story is: by all means take a tuk tuk, and enjoy every second of it, but be careful what it costs you – either in time or money.
Have any bosting Bangkok travel tips of your own? Please comment and share. (Really – please do. I’m heading back there soon and can always do with new tricks!). And definitely check out Tiew With Me’s great Bangkok blog, which has loads of other travel tips and insider knowledge.