Life As An Expat in Bangkok – Part 2: Transportation

Khlong Boat Bangkok

“Do you have a car?” This is perhaps the most common question I get from Americans when I tell them I live in Bangkok, probably because most Americans can’t imagine life without one. The answer to this question is an emphatic, “Hell No!” I have been to cities with more chaotic traffic – Dehli, Cairo and Hanoi immediately come to mind (which isn’t saying much) – but Thailand holds the dubious honor of having the most traffic deaths per capita of any country in the world, which is actually a major surprise to me because most of the time all the cars are parked in massive traffic jams. When flowing, Bangkok traffic is a ballet of suicidal motorbikes, lumbering buses, daring jay-walkers, speeding taxis, racing mini buses, and reckless tuk tuks, made worse by the fact that they drive on the wrong side (or Brittish side) of the road.

Add all of this together, and you can see why I have no intention of buying a car. Besides, I can get virtually everything I need – street food, sushi, gym, Thai massage, beer and a haircut – within a 10 minute walk from my house. When I do go farther afield, I use one of four modes of transportation which I will discuss below.

Bangkok motorbike accident

Example #1134 of why Thailand has 80 automobile accident deaths each day – no helmet, one hand on the handlebars, cell phone in the other, eyes closed.


Bus

For trips within 5 miles of our apartment, I almost always take the bus. The Bangkok bus system is actually pretty easy to use – simply jump on board, pay a few Baht to a lady who takes money, tell her your destination, then sit there with a dumb, confused look on your face. When the bus arrives, the ticket lady will take pity on you and ensure you get off at the right place. I am always the only foreigner on the bus, and Thai people are very helpful, especially for people like me who constantly look lost, confused and maybe a little special.

There are two kinds of buses: A/C and non-A/C. The air-con buses are fairly-newish and almost comfortable, but I prefer the non-air-con buses which look like they served a tour of duty in a distant war before being put to use carrying people on the roads of Bangkok. These soot-stained contraptions weigh as much as a cargo ship, can run over a fleet of tuk tuks without slowing down and bully any motorist dumb enough to get in their way. They are the king of the roads.

The best part of the non-air-con buses is that the windows are down, meaning I can see outside and take photos. At each bus stop I get a great view as the the bus rolls past the stop, slams on the brakes slowing down to 5 kph as people frantically run to jump aboard the rolling vehicle. The driver always stomps on the gas just as the last person gets on, ensuring the last passenger runs along the bus for a half a block, holding onto the handrail, hanging on for dear life, before managing to jump in. Sometimes, the person running to jump in is me.

Bangkok bus

The windows are always down the non-A/C buses which are built like tanks.

bangkok bus

Passengers crowding onto a bus – the drivers instinctually take off just before the last person can embark.

Victory monument bus


Khlong Boat

We live about 10 miles from downtown – a trip that can take from 45 minutes to three days by taxi, depending on traffic. However, a ferry plies the canal, or khlong, that extends from our neighborhood into the heart of the city, with stops near Sukhumvit, Siam Square and Khao San Road. It is slow, uncomfortable and slightly dangerous, but never stuck in traffic.

The khlong works a lot like the bus – as the speeding boat approaches a stop, the driver shuts off the engine and pulls the boat parallel to the pier as a ticket-taker/boat-cowboy lassos a metal pole and ties the boat to the dock. At this time, disembarking passengers step over a tarp and onto a narrow wooden ledge while ducking under the roof before leaping to safety on dry land, while embarking passengers fold themselves in half and squeeze under the roof and step over the various trip hazards before plopping onto the wooden bench or another passenger, whichever comes first. All of this takes place as the boat rocks violently from its own wake. Meanwhile, the passengers seated on the narrow wooden benches shuffle from side to side to allow space for the new arrivals. Note: the boat is never too full – there is always room to cram one more person in each row.

When getting on and off the boat, I have one goal – don’t fall in the khlong!!! The water smells like a delicious mixture of raw sewage, rotten fish and hot garbage. Ingesting one tablespoon of canal water will cause significant birth defects in the offspring of pregnant women and exposure to skin can lead to flesh eating skin rashes, or so I’ve been told. I’d love to see some stats on how many people fall in the khlong each year and how many get limbs crushed between the rollicking boat and pier. Actually, I don’t what to see those stats – I’d probably never ride it again.

I usually get on the klhong at the first stop, which means I have an entire bench to myself for a stop or two, but eventually the entire boat fills up. Since the boat gathers people from both sides of the canal and passengers are constantly shifting from side to side, I live in constant fear that I will end up on the side blasted by the tropical sun. About every four benches is a pulley system that must be used to hoist the tarp so that canal water doesn’t splash everyone. It is up to whoever happens to be sitting in that row to do their civic duty and pull and hold the rope while the boat is in motion. Sometimes the rope person neglects their job, meaning passengers get sprayed with shit water, which can be quite refreshing on a hot day, especially if stuck on the sunny side, but the khlong water perfume stays with you for days.

Khlong Boat Bangkok

Khlong boat full of passengers, blue tarp being used correctly.

Bangkok canal boat

The ticket-taker/boat-cowboy preparing to lasso the pier.

bangkok-transportation3

Bangkok Khlong boat

The ticket-taker/boat-cowboys make their way around the perimeter of the boat, taking money and doing their best to not fall in the canal between boat stops.


Taxi

Taxis in Thailand are dirt cheap by international standards, but I don’t usually take them when I go places by myself, mainly because I enjoy the drama and challenge of public transport. As I said, the roads in Bangkok are perpetually clogged with traffic, so going by taxi isn’t a lot faster than going by bus.

Stoplights are the great equalizer of Bangkok traffic. It can take anywhere from five minutes to two hours for a light to change, meaning that the drivers not only have pent up frustration but also an open highway ahead – until the next traffic jam at least. Taxi drivers use this fleeting open road to race down the road like they are driving a getaway car after a bank heist.

For some inexplicable reason, most of the taxis don’t have seat belts. Let me clarify: there is always a shoulder harness/lap belt thingy, but rarely anything to buckle it into. When in a taxi, I find myself in one of two states: being tossed from side to side, holding on for dear life, wondering if my wife has the passwords to the banking accounts in case I die, or sitting idly in a traffic jam watching the meter slowly accumulate charges as the driver takes a nap.

Bangkok traffic

Is that a parking lot or a road?

Bangkok traffic jam

When the lights change, cars race until the next traffic jam.

Lion Taxi


Motorcycle Taxi

On rare occasions, I take motorcylce taxis. At many intersections, especially near bus stops, motorcycle taxis gather to take people into smaller neighborhoods. Intrepid passengers hop on the back of a bike and get whisked down narrow roads to their house, or use it to get from home to the bus stop. I’ve seen many Thai women riding side-saddle on the bikes putting on make-up in the morning. They are very skilled.

We use the motorcycle taxi to go down the street in our neighborhood to a series of lakeside restaurants and bars that are just a bit too far to reach by foot, especially when my wife has on insensible shoes and we don’t want to sweat out our shirts. Kristi gets in the middle and I barely fit on the back of the bike, holding on for dear life, not wanting to make an unexpected exploration of the Thai health care system.

Once at the dreaded immigration office, I found myself in a serpentine line of at least 100 people waiting for a taxi. I saw an open motorcycle taxi so I decided to ride it out to the highway where I’d be able to hail a cab. Rush hour traffic had turned the roads into parking lots, so the driver sped between stalled cars before jumping onto a sidewalk, where he dodged pedestrians and bicyclists. We entered a street market and the driver sped right down the middle, narrowly missing women grilling meat, vendors setting up their wares and kids running about.

That moment was the first time I felt like a Thai – I had outsmarted all the other foreigners waiting for the taxi and used a motorbike in one of the most dangerous ways possible. If I owned a car I’d have missed out on that fun, and all the other wonderful interactions and daily dramas associated with public transportation in this buzzing metropolis.

Bangkok motorcycle taxi

Motorcycle taxi drivers waiting for passengers.

motorcycle taxi clubhouse

The motorcycle taxi drivers have little clubhouses throughout the city where they watch TV, play cards or take naps while waiting for fares.

Moto taxi waiting


What is the most chaotic city you’ve been to? 

Do you use public transport? 

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63 Comments on “Life As An Expat in Bangkok – Part 2: Transportation

  1. Thanks so much for your minority report. That description of non-AC buses? IED, huh? It was hilarious and, of course, clutch. I have learnt so much about Bangkok from this post. I’m from Zimbabwe but studying in India. The status quo is somewhat similar to that of Thailand. I envy you for the boat rides, though; we have to go to the park to have those. Again, thanks. Please, keep writing!

    • India has some of the craziest traffic I’ve seen, way worse than Thailand even! What city are you in?

      Thank you for commenting!

      • Yet here I am thinking I have seen the craziest! I’m in Durgapur but I don’t suppose you know it. My best bet is you know Kolkata; Durgapur is just three hours of road from Kolkata.

  2. This is awesome! Love the descriptions but particularly of the bus drivers strategy and the photos of public transportation are obviously very “real life” photos. Brings back great Bangkok memories! We mostly used the ferry and on quite a few occassions the motorcycle taxi which is quite the adrenaline boost especially once when I was on there for 40 minutes speeding along busy expressways etc to a destination that was WAY further than I realized. And no I did not ride side saddle, I clung on for dear life and shut my eyes quite a few tines. Survival.

    We have not owned a car for ten years now and love being more eco friendly and being non car dependant. Public transportation is the best way to get know the locals and yup, in Bangkok you would be insane to even attempt driving there.

    Peta

    • A 40 minute motorcycle taxi ride? No thank you! I bet you kissed the ground when you got off. I’ve been able to walk to work for about 12 years now. It sure beats sitting in a traffic jam!

      I could never live in a sprawling city like Dallas or Houston that has no real public transport, but a city like Bangkok or New York is perfect. I love being able to walk where I need to go or easily get a ride.

      Thanks for commenting!

      • I think I was in shock when I got off… I had no idea we would be speeding and whizzing past cars, construction sights. I just held on for dear life and prayed for the best. I might have kissed the driver though!

        Public transport is key I totally agree, to moving around in a big city.

        Peta

  3. I had so many laugh out loud moments reading this post. However I should mention I tend to laugh at inappropriate times especially when I’ve narrowly escaped death and am just grateful to be alive. Eighty traffic deaths a DAY?!! Yowzer!

    There are so many brilliant descriptions in here I don’t know where to start – but the boat photo with the guy and his lasso is my favourite because of the girl in the background on the right in the white shirt. It looks like she’s holding on, terrified for her life 🙂

    • As the khlong boat nears the pier, the exiting passengers usually stand up and move to the edge so they can get off. It looks like that lady is making her move, and yes, holding on for dear life!

      Yes, 80 a day is crazy, and I think most of it has to due with people not wearing seat belts, no helmets and minivans that turn into fiery death traps after accidents! Thank you for the compliments and comments.

  4. I enjoyed your post. The girl on the motorbike in the first photo made me laugh. Goodness gracious. In a bit, I’ll probably go get in the Dodge dually like any other Okie farmer and head for town. In that thirteen miles, I expect to meet five or six other trucks. Maybe a car, even.

  5. Your posts always make me laugh, Jeff, but this one was particularly funny. I think you need to gather all of these funny insights together and publish them into a book. You can certainly give Bill Bryson a run for his money. Already looking forward to your next post!

  6. You mean you don’t ride a motorcycle with one hand while taking photos of moose in Alaska? Haha
    Istanbul wins the crazy traffic award from us but then we haven’t been to Bangkok.

    • The island I live on in Alaska has no law enforcement. One of my co-workers who does not have a drivers license, in a car with no tag, with no insurance, hit a moose and obliterated the front of the car. He was honest with the park rangers when they asked him about it and they said nothing, not even a warning! I think the big difference is that in Alaska if you have a wreck there is not other traffic to run into.

      • Yikes! Well true enough about the lack of other traffic. Moose area road hazard here too although more often it is deer.

  7. Such an interesting post!
    Very nice to know what public transport looks like in other parts of the world, and to see the contrast with Europe, where everything is excessively organised.
    Thanks for sharing.

    • The metro here is up to European standards as far as cleanliness, organization and efficiency, but it doesn’t come to my neighborhood! It is interesting to see who people get around, it tells a lot about a culture.

  8. Very fun read, Jeff. I’d vote Athens into a top spot, I think, although the big Asian cities have a level of chaos and frenzy that no European city can top.

  9. I remember well the chaotic roads and traffic of Bangkok. We used the river boats a lot to get around and also the tuk tuks, it was scary but exhilarating at the same time. Your account of Bangkok transportation is hilarious, I would love to go back there in the near future.

  10. Great post Jeff! Yeah, I just about went on every ride with you – scary but fun! I too would rather take public transport – to see the life on the streets and for photo ops. Fabulous photos! Still want to know how to do the sharp subject-blurred background look. My sister told me and I wrote it down but haven’t practiced yet. I suspect I need an ND filter for my camera to be able to do it.
    Alison

    • We will have to give you a homework assignment to take a motion blur photo. It is due next Friday 🙂

      Public transport as you say is a great way to get different photos and perspectives.

  11. Your overdramatic overview of your experiences in Thailand is hilarious! I must say that now I am a bit scared to take public transport and go anywhere near that canal water. Thanks for the post 🙂

    • Don’t fall in the canal! That is your number one goal. Public transport during the middle of the day is great, just avoid rush hour.

  12. We are currently experiencing the fun and chaos of transportation in Bangkok. Sorry have not connected but we’ve been feeling overwhelmed and jet-lagged and hot…and realizing we can’t pack nearly as much into a day as we had planned. We’re chilling a bit before getting in the khlong boat to Banglamphu. I got a spritz of canal water in my face yesterday and was panicing about flesh-eating infections. Tomorrow it’s weekend market and then we leave this awesome crazy city. I envy you for being able to really get to know it.

  13. Living in Jakarta, this post sure brought a smile to my face! Public transportation in Bangkok sounds SO much like how it is here. Motorcycle taxis are a lifesaver and we also have different kinds of non-A/C buses plying the streets… I haven’t taken either one just yet but it’s only a matter of time! The traffic jams are extraordinary (it has to be even worse than in Bangkok, and we are only just building our first metro line), which is why I choose to walk 45 minutes from my office back home each day. We have the same fetid canals but I think most are too small to accommodate those longboats. That said, someone did float the idea of a ferry system a couple years back.

    • I am sure that the traffic in Jakarta is worse, and I don’t know how you do it! The metro/sky train is actually pretty good here, we just don’t live very close to it, but it certainly alleviates a lot of pressure on the roads. On Saturday we used it after Chinese New Year and we passed over road after road of clogged traffic, otherwise it would have taken forever to get home!

  14. If I read this post to any of my friends here without mentioning the name of the city, I bet all of them would assume I was telling them a story about Jakarta. I used to drive to work in my early years living in the city. I remember one morning I was a bit late leaving for work, so I had to do so many things while driving. I know someone who can put on make-ups while having breakfast AND driving. Now I prefer to walk or ride a bicycle to work.

    • Putting on make-up, eating and driving is like the Olympics of multi-tasking, but I am assuming much time is spent in traffic jams!

      Are there plans to build a subway or sky train in Jakarta? Is it even possible to make a subway since the city is under sea level?

      I just did a Google search on cities with the worst traffic and there seems to be several rankings with different results, but this one http://money.cnn.com/gallery/news/2016/03/21/worst-traffic-cities/ has Bangkok as the worst and this one http://time.com/3695068/worst-cities-traffic-jams/ has Jakarta as the worst. At least we have options of sky train, metro and canal boats.

      • Jakarta’s first subway line is currently under construction, more than 20 years after it was first planned! The current governor has also commissioned lines for sky train. So if you visit the city right now, it doesn’t look pretty due to all the constructions — Jakarta is never known as a pretty city anyway, but right now it’s really messy. But at least we know a few years from now we can expect to take the subway or sky train to beat the traffic.

        Jakarta and Bangkok have always been rated among the world’s most congested cities. But yea, at least Bangkok has more decent public transport options.

  15. Great post! Having lived in Bangkok for 5 years myself I can totally relate to what you write here. The khlong boats are my favorite by far. Sawadee kha and enjoy Bangkok!!!

  16. We just left Bangkok, the transportation seemed confusing at the start but easy enough to get the hang of. The chaotic mess that it is somehow works for them. Your post made me laugh, some of the things you explained is the exact thoughts that I had when being there.

    • Glad you made sense of the transportation. Bangkok is fun to visit if you are in the right frame of mind. Will you be blogging about your time here?

      • It took a bit to get use to but people are so friendly and try to help.
        Definitely! I’ve actually been doing weekly posts in a journal style.

  17. You must have noticed I have been “trolling” you. haha. I was just playing catch up since last night reading my favorite bloggers’ posts. But let me tell you my Bangkok story. I was only there for one freaking day and I wanted to leave. Right away. I wanted to go back to the calm that is Chiang Mai. We went to the Grand Palace and the King is there with everyone paying their respects. That is a sight to see though. I was quite impressed with how they mourn. Now I was prepared for traffic jams and such. What I was not prepared was walking for 2 hours to get back to our hotel because no Uber driver would come to where we were at. There were two who attempted to come pick us up at the McDonalds where we were to get free wifi but then suddenly changed course. We had no choice but to walk and walk until it was too close to our hotel to catch a ride. I admit I didn’t want to take a cab or a tuktuk for fear of getting scammed. We were so exhausted that we had to cancel our Khao San road plans that night.

    • I feel your pain. I am working on a blog post about how many people don’t enjoy Bangkok, which I think is a shame because it is a great city once you get a handle on it. I tried to take a taxi about 7 miles the other day to the dentist office. The driver went way out of the way and I ended up 7 miles away on the other side! I just got out of the cab and took the subway at that point!

      • You can count me in! I am not a big city person in the first place anyway so I think that contributed to my already biased mind. Even you, a long term resident, got scammed. How much more scamming do you think they can do to an ordinary naive tourist? On second thought, if you can recommend to me a place that has delicious and cheap mango sticky rice, maybe I will give Bangkok a chance. 🙂

  18. Man i miss Bangkok. I used to love riding those klong boats. My objective each time was to arrive to the centre of Bangkok without a mouthful of poisonous canal water. Taxis were so cheap, but i got ripped off a few times. I taught English there for 7 months and loved it. Songkran was amazing. Great post good luck on your travels.

    • Yeah, taxis are cheap and most drivers are honest, but you have to be careful, especially in downtown. Not getting canal water in the mouth is a great goal. Achieve that and the boat ride was a success! Thanks for your comments.

      • I used to love the tuk tuks too, haggling with them was fun as well. How long do you plan to stick in Thailand for? I found it hard to settle there, wanted to be close to home.

      • I could see us being here for several years. Other than the extreme heat in March and April, we pretty much love it here.

  19. I loved reading this! I am going to Thailand with a friend for the first time. We haven’t really got a set plan but maybe just catch a cab from the airport to our air bob hotel. I am assuming taxis are cheap in Thailand rearrangement isn’t neccassary ?

    • At the airport, you get a number and wait for a taxi. It usually takes about 1-5 minutes. All taxis use meters and at the airport they almost always just turn it on, but about 1 out of every 1000 times they may try not to. Insist they use it.

      Anytime you use a taxi, insist they use it or get out.

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