“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. This is actually a surprise 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 minibusses, 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, 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.
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 collects money, tell her your destination, then sit there with a 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 helpful, especially for people like me who 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 kings of the road.
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 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.
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 know what to see those stats – I’d probably never ride it again.
I usually get on the khlong at the first stop, which means I have an entire bench to myself for a stop or two, but eventually, the 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 perfumed water stays with you for days.
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.
On rare occasions, I use motorcycle 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 exciting interactions and daily dramas associated with public transportation in this buzzing metropolis.
What is the most chaotic city you’ve been to? Do you use public transport?