Once you’ve discovered Bangkok’s public transit system, you’ll never take a taxi again.
In 2012, we ditched taxis (and mostly ditched tuk tuks – even though they’re so much fun). We discovered the public transit system in Bangkok. It’s a terrific way to get around this colossal city. Public transit here is made up of buses, riverboats, a small modern subway and a short Skytrain system. The other day, while on a particularly challenging problem-solving mission to sort out airline tickets, we traveled across the city and back using the riverboats, the old buses, the underground metro and the Skytrain. The subway and Skytrain are beautiful, modern systems. Chilled like refrigerators and packed with foreign tourists heading to shopping malls, they are modern systems that could be anywhere. But they are lacking in charm.
The older buses and the riverboats run by BTS (Bangkok Transit System) are our favourites. The ones real people use to go to work everyday. Smelly, loud and ancient, they are wabi-sabi [LINK: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabi-sabi] incarnate: dented and scraped, chipped and faded, colourful exteriors. Wooden floors and simple interiors. They betray decades of service and everything works the way it needs to. There’s nothing flourished or fancy or put-on. On most, air conditioning is an open window.
The riverboats are amazing. Imagine a smaller, faster and narrower Star Ferry equipped with a massive and powerful diesel engine. The drivers are skilled, maneuvering the boats nimbly forward and reverse at each pier along the Chao Praya river. People hop on and off quickly as the boat stops for just a few seconds before roaring off to the next pier. It’s a ridiculously efficient way to get around and we love it.
What you see is what you get. It takes a little effort and some patience, but these buses and boats are cheap and reliable and will get you anywhere in the city. The engines howl. They spew black diesel like it’s 1952 and no one cares. But you’ll fall in love with them anyway.
At the bus stop, they come screeching to a halt, doors flung open and passengers jumping off while the bus is still moving. Then with a loud crank and banging noise, the driver slips it into gear and roars off. You settle into a seat or take a stand somewhere near a window.
As soon as you take a seat, you hear tschap-tschap-tschap…tschap…tschap… tschap, tschap, tschap. The sound of the ticket-takers clacking their round metal ticket tubes open and closed as they move up and down the bus taking fares and handing out tickets. The tubes are each decorated in unique ways. We’ve seen ones covered in stickers, some in colourful beads, others seemingly made from colourful scraps of metal. They take your 6.50 baht (about 25 cents), and using the metal tube, they tear off tickets and mark them with the appropriate rips that indicate direction and time of travel. It’s simple and efficient.
We’ve been to Bangkok many times. We usually stay for a just a week or two on our way to somewhere else. It’s our city of respite when we’ve been traveling in countries that are more challenging and we want a modernity break. Our most recent challenging country was the deeply frozen hell of Toronto. We’re glad to be in Bangkok’s warm embrace. We’ve decided to stay here for a month.
A month? In Bangkok? Yes. It’s an affordable and convenient place for Karen to work. It’s a fantastic place to wander and take photographs. And it’s a perfect place for us to plan out the next few months.
We’re heading to Hong Kong in March for a couple of weeks. We’ll meet up with some friends there and spend some quality time in one of our favourite cities on earth before moving further east.
We’ve each long wanted to visit Japan. In fact, Japan has been on our short list since before our very first sabbatical in 2007. But always somehow we’ve made the regrettable decision to skip it. For such a tiny country, there are literally thousands of places worthy of visiting there. Prioritizing them and working out a plan to visit is challenging. You have to decide what to miss. It’s an expensive place; so landing without a plan can cost you a fortune. We’ll spend a month there trying to get the most out of our short visit.
This week we’re off to Ayutthaya, the remains of Thailand’s ancient capital located a couple of hours north of Bangkok. There are several day tours available. An air-conditioned minibus journey with a guide; lunch is included.
But we’ve decided to get there on public transit. The number 53 to Hua Lamphong station; from there, we’ll take the train and a little ferry across the river to Ayutthaya. It’ll take a little longer, but the journey is always half the fun.
Till our next post, here are some more photos from the week.