One of Bangkok’s biggest problems, like many other Asian mega-cities, is the traffic. The traffic problem is quite likely to be the worst you’ve ever seen, when at several times of the day, the huge arterial roads in Bangkok grind to a halt under the weight of the 9.7 million registered vehicles in the capital. As a tourist, spending 2 hours stuck in the back of a stationary taxi can be highly frustrating and an annoying waste of your holiday, not to mention the fact that the meter will be ticking up the entire time. This is why in 1999 the government introduced the BTS mass transit system, known as the “Skytrain”, not that it eased the traffic at all – it didn’t.
It would be technically wrong to refer to the BTS as a monorail, because each train runs on two tracks, but other than that it is identical; an air-conditioned, elevated train network that snakes through the capital, providing relief from the chaos below. The trains are clean, modern, convenient and cheap, and allow you to avoid having to struggle to find an honest taxi driver who is willing to use the meter.
Does the BTS Cover All of Bangkok?
No, and this is a major bugbear of the system. Unlike other comprehensive mass transit systems such as London’s Underground, the BTS’s two lines and 44 stations only cover a relatively small part of the city. The two lines are called Sukhumvit and Silom as these are the two areas of Bangkok mostly covered by each line, but the government is planning to add additional stations and lines through an investment program over the next decade or so.
This means that many areas west of the financial district are not covered, so if you want to visit the Grand Palace, Wat Arun or Khao San Road, you’re still going to need to use an additional method of transportation. But don’t let this put you off because you can take the BTS to Saphan Taksin and get a river taxi (which are also amazingly cheap) and still save yourself a lot of time and hassle.
Conversely, if you’re staying in the Khao San area, take the river taxi down to Saphan Taksin to get access to the BTS Skytrain, from there you can go to many places without wasting hundreds on taxis.
Is It Expensive to Travel on the BTS?
No. In fact, compared to fares on the London Underground, the tickets are laughably cheap. A one way ticket for an adult varies from 16 baht to 44 baht ($0.52 to $1.44). Compare that to £4.90 ($6.11) for a one journey ticket in London! Plus the BTS is cleaner, newer and nicer, with more spacious trains. There are no child fares but if a child is below 90cm they travel free, it really is great value, and even more so if you take advantage of the pre-paid Rabbit card (much like an Oyster card in London), although don’t get too excited about the discounts this card offers, it’s more about the convenience of not having to queue for a ticket machine.
The key point to take away here is that taking the BTS will almost always be cheaper than taking a taxi or tuk-tuk, and at many times of the day, it will be faster too, so you should use it wherever possible.
How Does the Rabbit Card Work?
At any station you can get a Rabbit card for a refundable charge of 100 Baht ($3.28), and then you can load the card with either a cash balance or a number of pre-paid journeys. Foreigners are now being asked to show their passports when topping up their Rabbit cards, so if you intend to use one, make sure you carry yours (technically you are supposed to carry your passport at all times in Thailand anyway, but nobody does).
There is an issue with the Rabbit card which is caused by the fact that the BTS is owned and partly run by the government and partly run by a private company (under a franchise) – they both accept cash from your Rabbit card but only one accepts the prepaid journeys. Personally, when you factor in this complication with the lousy discounts (as little as 1 Baht ($0.03) per journey), and the fact that you have to remember to bring your card back to get your 100 Baht, I would just stick to cash, especially if you’re only in Bangkok for a few days.
How to Buy Your Tickets
Buying your ticket is easy – provided you have enough change, as some of the older machines don’t accept notes. If you don’t have change you can get some from the staff at the booths, but at a busy time of day this means that you have to queue up twice so try to remember to keep some change back, or buy a bottle of water at the 7-11 which are usually very close to the BTS stations. The machines work in a variety of languages and if you’ve ever used similar machines in other countries, you will find it a breeze.
You are not allowed to eat or drink on the BTS, neither are you allowed to bring animals except for guide dogs. The trains run from around 6am to midnight, but you can use the BTS Skytrain app on your smartphone to see exact times for your journey, and keep track of any delays or issues. Also if you are carrying bags with you, don’t be offended if a security guard wants to take a quick look inside.
As you can see, the fares are cheap. The savings over using taxis or tuk-tuks can be huge, if you are visiting various destinations in the Sukhumvit/Silom areas, you could potentially save as much as a thousand baht a day by using the Skytrain and avoiding the taxi drivers, many of whom will try and overcharge you wherever possible. You also won’t have to waste hours stuck in the back of a taxi or breathing in all the fumes in the back of a tuk-tuk. Therefore, always check your destination to see if the BTS is an option, and your time in Bangkok will be much easier if you can book a hotel within walking distance of a BTS station.
Best Places to go on the BTS Skytrain
Best Stations for Shopping
If it’s bargains you’re after then the MBK mall should be your first stop, which is next to the National Stadium station. It has a huge range of shops with everything from clothes to used mobile phones, plenty of places to eat, and a hi-tech cinema and bowling alley on the top floor. For Terminal 21, which is a must see for visitors to Bangkok, you’ll want the Asok station. If you are looking to go a bit more up market, Siam Paragon is close to the Siam station, or alight at Phloen Chit BTS for Central Embassy (ultra high-end shopping with mostly luxury brand name goods).
But whatever you do, don’t miss the infamous Chatuchak market, for which you’ll need to get off at Mo Chit station. It’s one of the biggest open air markets in the world, and something you won’t forget in a hurry.
Best Stations for Food
This is a tough one as you can eat well almost anywhere in Bangkok. But Chinatown is a short hop from Hua Lamphong station (about a 5-10 minute walk over the bridge to Yaowarat Road), or the extensive Eathai food court is in the basement of the Central Embassy, which is half way between Chit Lom and Phloen Chit stations. Alternatively you can get off at the Saphan Taksin BTS station, and take a river taxi up the Chao Phraya to the Phra Arthit stop and wander around Banglampu which has hundreds of places to eat, and is home to the famous Khao San Road if you fancy a beer or two afterwards.
Don’t forget that in Thailand, most malls have food courts, and unlike most food courts in the West, they offer very good quality food at low prices. Just take a look at how many locals are eating there, Thai people do not suffer bland food kindly. In particular, Terminal 21 has a fantastic food court, but be warned, everyone seems to know this and it can get seriously packed!
Best Stations for Nightlife
There are dozens of bars and pubs within a stone’s throw of Nana BTS (including Bully’s Pub and The Game), with plenty more down soi 11, and the infamous Nana Plaza is only a few minutes walk along soi 4 which is across the road (although soi 4 is definitely not family-friendly!). If you’ve got your heart set on seeing the notorious Soi Cowboy, the nearest station is Asok, the street is just a few minutes walk away around the back of Terminal 21.
For something a bit more upmarket, you can get off at Thong Lo or Ekkamai, both of which have many bars, restaurants, nightclubs, karaoke joints and late-night massage parlours, and these places are where you’ll spot some well-dressed young Thais enjoying themselves over a bottle of Johnny Walker. There are some very trendy (and expensive) cocktail bars and music venues around this part of Sukhumvit, well worth at least a few hours of your time.
Best Stations for Parks
If you take the BTS to Ratchadamri, then it’s only a few minutes walk to the well-known Lumpini park which offers an oasis of calm in amongst the frenetic chaos of Bangkok. Chatuchak park is also very pleasant, and a nice place to sit down for a picnic, and it’s right next to the Mo Chit station (very popular at lunchtimes providing it isn’t raining). Benjakitti park is also very quiet and relaxing, featuring a huge lake, and is no more than 5 minutes walk south from Asok BTS, a great place to unwind after your shopping spree in Terminal 21.
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