A Newbie’s guide to getting around Bangkok

Hello travelling friends! It’s finally time for the first post of my 2022 Asian Adventure! I had grand plans of regularly blogging while I was out there but as always, I didn’t give myself much down time… 

First stop of my tour is perhaps the quintessential backpacking destination: Bangkok. It’s a huge, chaotic city and not the easiest to navigate but don’t worry, I’ve got you covered with all the below.

Planning transportation isn’t the most exciting part of a trip but it’s the bread and butter of a good trip! You’ll feel more at ease exploring your new surroundings and will enjoy yourself that much more. I’ve been a stickler for excellent transportation planning since my nightmarish experience of trying to get a train from Beijing to Shanghai in 2016…

Getting from the airport to the city centre

Two international airports serve Bangkok. Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) is the newer and bigger one and generally deals with long-haul flights. Don Mueang Airport (DMK) deals with short-haul and domestic flights. I ended up using both.

Taxi from Suvarnabhumi to central Bangkok

Chances are you’ll be landing in Suvarnabhumi. I’d say a taxi is the easiest option if you’re new to the city. If anyone approaches you offering a taxi ride, do not accept! It’s likely a scam. Be aware of meter scamming as well – a driver might try to arrange an over inflated price before your journey begins instead of using the meterAll public taxis are required to use the meter. If in doubt, before you set off you can politely confirm with the driver that they’ll be using the meter. I’ve done this and you’ll usually get a strong ‘yes yes!’ and a smile. If they refuse, just politely get out and find another taxi.

To take a public taxi, head to the ranks on the first floor. On the pavement just outside, there will be little booths where you get a printed ticket. The number on it will tell you which taxi bay to go to. (You can’t just approach a random taxi of your choice). 

Suvarnabhumi airport to the city is about 32km if you take the toll route. Otherwise it’s about 39km. The driver will usually ask if you want to take the toll route for which you’ll need to pay a small extra fee. Overall, expect to pay about ฿200-฿400 (~£4-£10) depending where your accommodation is. On an average traffic day, the journey can take about 45 minutes.

Airport Express bus from Suvarnabhumi to central Bangkok

I never took this option myself but seems reliable enough if you’re on a particularly tight budget and happen to be staying near the infamous Khao San Road.

The express buses run from 5:30am to midnight daily and go straight to Khao San Road. A ticket is ฿150 (~£3.50). You can find the ticket counters on the airport’s first and second floors

Taxi from Don Mueang Airport to central Bangkok

Don Mueang to Bangkok is about 25km but journey times can vary wildly depending on the infamous traffic. The journey will generally take 45 minutes. Expect to pay about ฿300 (~£7-£8). 

Once you’ve cleared customs, follow the signs for taxis. You’ll arrive in a large waiting room. Take a numbered ticket and wait for your number to appear on screen. Depending on the day and time, you can end up waiting a while. (Friday nights were particularly bad!). Again, be wary of scams! Opportunistic drivers will often hang around outside the waiting room asking if you need a taxi. Play it safe and use the ticketed system.

When your number is called, approach your assigned ticket desk and tell the agent where you want to go. Best to have the address written down in Thai. They’ll then confirm with a waiting taxi driver and print you a receipt. You don’t need to give this to the driver but best to keep it handy because it’ll have your destination written on so can always reconfirm with the driver later if they get confused.

Once you get going, your driver will ask if you are happy to take the Toll Way/Express Way or not. It’s generally the quickest way to get into the city but you will need to pay the toll there and then in cash. It’s about ฿50 (~£1.20) in addition to the overall journey fee.

Taking buses within the city

Some buses come with air con (the newer looking ones) but the cheapest ones only have some half-hearted fans. You’ll be able to tell as they approach – if the windows are open, it’s a non-air-con bus! I took a mix of both but perhaps wouldn’t recommend a long journey on a non-air bus if it’s particularly hot out. A non-air bus trip will cost about ฿10 (~£0.20). An air-con bus might be about ฿20.

Flagging down a bus is similar to western countries. Make sure you’re standing at a designated bus stop and stick your arm out as one approaches. Some people give a little wave too. If the bus doesn’t stop, it’s probably already full. Or the driver just didn’t see you…

When boarding either type of bus, just take a seat (or stand if it’s busy) and the bus conductor will eventually approach you for payment with their rattling container of coins. Cash only here. Notes larger than ฿100 aren’t appreciated so come with small change. They usually don’t speak English so best to either have your destination written down in Thai (say, on your phone on Google Maps) if you’re not confident you can pronounce the name properly.

When your stop approaches, the conductor will often let you know and will shout out to the bus driver. If you’re not sure, ask the conductor. If you’ve been following your route on Goggle Maps and see your stop coming up, press one of the bell buttons to tell the driver.

Taking the subway

Bangkok has two types of subway – the over ground ‘Skytrain’ (named because it moves on high tracks over roads) or the MRT which is underground. If you hadn’t already sussed, Bangkok traffic is awful at every time of day so taking one of these trains was always my top choice.

Regular rules apply like on any other country’s metro system but if you’re new to Asia, a few extras to remember: you must always give up your seat to a monk just as you would to anyone elderly, disabled or pregnant. You’re also not allowed to bring durian onboard – Asia’s famously stinky fruit and a must-try!

Before deciding which train type to take, get a reloadable ‘Rabbit card’. You can get one from any BTS ticket counter. Now you can tap in and out of train stations easy breezy. You can only reload it with cash at various booths. There’s a both in every station but there’s also some in convenience stores or places like McDonalds (!). You can also use it to buy food and drinks at certain stores! 

At the end of your trip, if you plan on never coming back to Bangkok (boo), you can get a refund on your Rabbit card’s remaining total but you won’t get the card issuing fee refunded.

Taking the BTS Skytrain

Trains run regularly from 5:30am to midnight. The BTS stations and the different lines are super easy to navigate (if a little manic in rush hour…). Only downside is each station is open air and Bangkok summers are HOT. And when I visited, the facemask mandate was still in place. 30+ degrees celsius and god knows how humid. My face has never been so sweaty from exerting such little effort… Thankfully the trains themselves are air conditioned.

Taking the MRT subway

The MRT is pretty much like any other metro system in the world. Unfortunately you can’t use your Rabbit card to pay for journeys. You’ll need to buy a plastic ‘token’ at the ticket machines for each journey. Just tap your token at the ticket gates and when you get to your destination station, feed it into the designated slot on the ticket gates. Sadly MRT stations also aren’t airconditioned but do have a few fans. Top tip: strategically stand under the platform’s biggest fan, unless someone’s beaten you to it… Thankfully the trains themselves have icy air con.

Taking outer-city trains from Bangkok

If you’re heading out of Bangkok for the day or further out for the next leg of your trip, you’ll likely be needing a train. (If you’re heading to the islands or going far out to a less visited city, you’ll need to take a domestic flight. More on these another day). The biggest outer-city train station was the historical Hua Lamphong but sadly this closed in January 2023. Bangkok’s new main train station hub is Krung Thep Aphiwat Central Terminal (you’ll sometimes see it referred to as its old name ‘Bang Sue Grand Station’).

Tickets can be easily bought in person on the day at station ticket counters but you can also buy online in advance through the State Railways of Thailand website which I’d recommend doing. (The website is a bit slow but does have an English version). Even for relatively short journeys, I’d recommend booking several days in advance. I booked a one way to Ayutthaya (about an hour’s train journey) but when it came to booking a return the day before I wanted to go back to Bangkok, they’d sold out and I had to book a pricier taxi back (which my Ayutthaya guesthouse helpfully arranged last minute).

Taking a ‘sleeper’ train

Taking an overnight train across Thailand is one of those ‘must-dos’. I did it once and wouldn’t again but glad I gave it a go! Tickets can be bought direct through the State Railways of Thailand website (which I did) or through a more user-friendly agent like 12Go (the go-to place for buying train tickets across Asia) for an additional small fee. Look out for a future tell-all post on taking a sleeper train in Thailand.

Hailing taxis with ‘Grab’

Grab is what Uber is called in Asia. It’s cheap and very convenient. I never hailed a taxi off the street while I was in Bangkok and just ordered Grabs. You can link a credit or debit card to your Grab account (you’ll need a local SIM card) meaning you never have to worry about having enough cash on you or burning through ATM withdrawal fees. Drivers don’t get paid very little so I always left a tip (the app will ask if you want to once your journey is finished).

Grab also offers a motorbike version of its taxi service for a cheaper fee but I STRONGLY don’t recommend it unless you’re comfortable riding motorbikes as a passenger. Sure, your driver will give you a spare Grab-emblazed helmet (which is about as malleable as a bouncy ball…) but you’re otherwise at the mercy of your driver and Bangkok traffic.

River Taxi

A quintessential bit of Bangkok transport and one of the few that doesn’t involve traffic jams, hurrah! They’re cheap and a nice scenic way to get your Bangkok bearings. Fares are about ฿10-฿25 per journey or you can get an unlimited day pass for ฿100. You’ll likely take a river taxi to sites like the Grand Palace which aren’t well connected to train stations. River taxi routes are on Google Maps so just plug in your destination and let Google tell you whether to get a river taxi or not. Staff at river taxi piers are used to tourists and will tell you which coloured taxi you need to get and which pier to get off at. 

Tuk Tuk

Last but not least is the iconic tuk tuk! Did you really go to south east Asia if you didn’t ride a tuk tuk?? You’ll need to negotiate a price with the driver before you set off. They’re generally about the same price as a regular taxi. Make sure to tell your driver you want to go straight to your destination – some have been known to stop off at tourist-scamming shops on the way. Also do yourself a favour and have a look at the state of the tuk tuk and its driver! Any mangled bits of tuk tuk? Is the driver looking a bit bleary-eyed?! 

Once you feel confident in your driver and have agreed a price, hold on tight because there aren’t any seatbelts… And take care of your belongings while riding. A passing motorbike might take the opportunity to swipe your bag. You’ll be spotted as a tourist a mile-off, particularly if you’re white. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto!

Tell me your best Bangkok travel stories below! Have you had a particularly memorable taxi driver or even been brave enough to take a motorbike taxi?!

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