Bangkok by Train, Boat, Bus, and Tuk-Tuk

A few weeks ago, I was visited by a quartet of friends, several of whom are transportation geeks… er, enthusiasts. Reprising a transportation-themed tour I led two years ago, I took my guests on a six-hour excursion around the metropolis. This time, the number of modes of transportation increased from seven to ten: Thong Lor red bus, Khlong Saen Saeb canal boat, taxi, third-class heavy rail, non-air conditioned city bus, Chao Phraya express boat, ferry, tuk-tuk, Bus Rapid Transit, and Skytrain.

I hope you enjoyed the journey!

 

James Bond on the Khlong Saen Saeb Express

After two trips to the old city on Saturday to visit a lock store (which gave me the opportunity to see horses on the expressway while driving there), I needed to make a third and final visit on Monday, since the store was closed by the time I arrived on my second trip Saturday.  This time, facing the prospect of weekday traffic, I decided to ride the Khlong (canal) Saen Saeb express boat into the old city.

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I’ve written before about the Saen Saeb express boat in an entry about a journey on seven modes of transport in Bangkok.  It is an 18-kilometer water route that cuts east-west through the middle of the greater Bangkok area, running from the northeastern outskirts of Bangkapi all the way to the edge of Rattanakosin Island, stopping adjacent to the Golden Mount.  While the water is filthy and the boats are very crowded during rush hour, the express boats are not only an interesting way to get around, they are also a bargain with fares topping out at 20 baht, or about 65 American cents.

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While the inbound ride was packed – some 50 people sitting and another 30 or so standing – the return trip from the heart of the city at 9:00 am was almost completely empty, just me an a handful of passengers.  This gave me a chance to appreciate the breeze, which makes the canal express boats one of the coolest ways to travel.  However, with the murky water sometimes splashing over the plastic barriers, your risk of Hepatitis A infection is also higher on the boats than on any other form of transit.

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While enjoying the less crowded ride back home, I noticed the safety equipment that is lashed to the inside of the boat: flotation devices with a rather sinister man demonstrating their proper use.  His reminds me a bit of Sean Connery as James Bond.  What disturbs me, though, is not that James Bond is demonstrating the floatation devices.  What disturbs me is that the man appears to be standing in water that is only hip-deep.  If you’ve seen the water in Khlong Saen Saeb, you wouldn’t blame him! 

 

Seven Modes of Transport Around Bangkok

Last week I took two of my visiting guests (the third is Thai and was visiting his family instead) around Bangkok to see the sights.  Instead of doing the usual things, we spent a good portion of the day exploring the city using different, and often less-touristy, modes of transportation. 

The idea occurred to me a few weeks ago.  One of the guests is an aviation enthusiast, so I extrapolated that he might also be interested in other forms of transportation.  When I’ve previously used other ways to get around the city, I find myself seeing Bangkok through an entirely different light.

The modes of transport used could be varied and there were at least three – bus, taxi, and motorcycle taxi – that we did not try.  In the future, I will have to refine this itinerary, but here are the notes from this time.

Seven Modes

Mode 1: MRT Subway from Sukhumvit Station to Hualamphong Station

Walking from their hotel to the nearby Asoke-Sukhumvit intersection, my guests and I descended into Bangkok’s five-year old subway for a ten-minute ride to the Hualamphong train station.  The subway is clean and modern and the insides of the trains as well as the platform areas are surprisingly free of advertising.  A short walk through an underground passage took us to the front entrance of the Hualamphong Railway Station.  Trip price, approximately 20 baht each.

 

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Mode 2: State Railways of Thailand from Hualamphong Station to Lat Krabang Station

Our timing was perfect as there was just enough time to buy our 8-baht tickets and get to the platform before the four-car diesel locomotive pulled out of this 1930’s-era station and began the thirty-minute ride to the eastern suburbs of the city.  We could have disembarked at an earlier station and shaved some time off our route, but these open-window, unairconditioned carriages (which are older than me) and their passengers provide interesting people watching.  My entry about the steam engines the State Railways pulls out for special occasions.

 

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Mode 3: Airport City Line from Lat Krabang Station to Makkasan Station

Also operated by the State Railways, this elevated electric train runs along the same right-of-way as the diesel train, so we retraced our steps.  The City Line and the Airport Express share the same track and we disembarked at the brand-new “in-city terminal” where one day passengers will be able to check in for flights, deposit their baggage, and take the 15-minute express train to Suvarnabhumi Airport.  15 baht each but will increase after January 1 to a distance-based pricing scheme.  Link to my review of the Airport Express.

 

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A dog taking a nap outside the Petchaburi MRT Station, near the Asoke Pier.

Mode 4: San Saeb Canal Boat from Asoke Pier to Golden Mount

A short walk from Makkasan Station is the San Saeb Canal, a major east-west aquatic artery in this “Venice of the East” and the only one that has regular boat service.  The water is murky and the boat engines are very loud, but it is an adventure and provides a view of yet another, much poorer, facet of life in the Big Mango.  The end of the line is at the foot of the Golden Mount, the only hill in the city.  11 baht each.

Some pictures from the canal boat:

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Craig and Matt and a few dozen other passengers enjoy their ride on the murky waters of the San Saeb Canal.

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The boats whiz under various bridges, some so low that the canopied top of the boat must be lowered.

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Which explains why the conductors/deck hands wear helmets and are very alert of their surroundings.

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Not my guests.

Mode 5: Tuk-tuk from Golden Mount to Tammasat University

We negotiated with a tuk-tuk driver to take us to a riverside restaurant located just outside the gates of Tammasat University.  Tuk-tuks are three-wheeled auto-rickshaws that serve as transportation in many parts of town, so named because of the sound of their engines.  These are actually pretty dangerous and for the price you pay, a taxi offers greater comfort (air conditioning!) and safety (seatbelts!).  We could have taken the tuk-tuk all the way to the Grand Palace but I was hungry so lunch first.  60 baht total, so 20 baht each.

 

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Previous guests (not Craig and Matt) after disembarking from the Chao Phraya River Taxi.

Mode 6: Chao Praya River Taxi from Tha Tian Pier to Sathorn Pier

After lunch we were too late to see the Grand Palace (it closes at 3:30 – don’t believe anyone who tells you it is closed before that time) so we walked to Wat Po, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha.  I’ll write about that in another entry but once we were finished, a bit after rush hour, we caught a river taxi service from the Thai Tian Pier right near the temple back to Sathorn Pier underneath the Taksin Bridge.  Also 11 baht each.

 

Skytrain Departure

Mode 7: BTS Skytrain from Taksin Station to Asoke Station

We concluded our journey by walking to the nearby BTS Skytrain station.  The 10-year old BTS Skytrain is convenient and overcrowded.  Thankfully, new four-car trains are entering the system soon and additional cars have been ordered for the three-car trains.  From what I’ve read, BTS is also the hold-up in the efforts to create a common ticketing platform (a la Hong Kong’s Octopus card) between the three electric rail systems.  Nonetheless, for about 30 baht we made our way back to the Asoke-Sukhumvit junction.