Bangkok has it all. Really. It’s a massive cosmopolitan metropolis with over 8 million people, round the clock food, and enough culture to share with the rest of SE Asia. Despite some of the shortcomings (like the gut-wrenching stench that bellows from every manhole cover), Bangkok didn’t grow on me… I immediately found my place in it.

Upward mobility, economic growth, and symbolic class status have seemingly catapulted the number of cars on the road. A local told me that Thais will live with extended families in tiny homes and absorb exorbitant car payments just so they can say they have a car. I can’t comment on density of Bangkok traffic of years past, but proportionally there are far fewer scooters than cars in Bangkok compared to neighboring SE Asian megalopolises like Ho Chi Minh City. While road rules are more civilized in Bangkok, a higher percentage of cars leads to significant increases in traffic.

Having framed the traffic situation… this post isn’t about traffic in Bangkok, it’s about getting around. If you’ve seen my post on KL’s train system, you’ll know that I found it slightly confusing in the beginning, but hardly frustrating. KL’s train is quite comprehensive.

Given the multitude of transportation options in Bangkok, I haven’t found the right formula after 4 days (but I think I’m close); I seem to spend as much time looking for a ride as it takes me to get to my destination. I’ll admit that it’s a bit frustrating at times, especially trying to reduce being taken advantage of as much as possible.

Doesn’t mean a metered ride. It means they have a meter on the dashboard, and it’s absolutely their prerogative whether they use it. Despite the giant “metered” sign, which is easy to spot on the roof of the car, the meter is off by default. I got stuck once while in a rush overpaying by about 50% because I didn’t see the cabbie’s meter. When hailing a taxi, point at the meter and say “meter”. Get clear affirmation that they agree to use it before you get in–some will actually say no. Just walk away.

Generally, I’d say avoid Khao San unless you’re seeking a Bourbon Street experience. Chocked full of seedy travel agents, backpacker bars, and questionable silver dealers, Khao San Road is a budget party street in a city with so much more to offer. Its reputation is very gratuitous.

If you must go, which I did just to say I did, don’t hail a cab from here… Not even in the middle of the day, unless you want to pay 3x the proper rate. Cabbies here will refuse to use a meter and quote astronomical fares. Walk 3 blocks away from the taxi queue and find a non-Khao San Rd cabbie.

Tuk tuks also have a bit of a reputation in Bangkok. There’s somewhat of a thrill associated with them, and if I hadn’t experienced tuk tuks in other cities, my enamor may have persuaded me to take at least one ride. But the stories of scams (offering rides or tours for ultra cheap and taking you to affiliated shops rather than your destination) and overcharging (by several times even after negotiation because “foreigner”) dashed my desire to tuk tuk around Bangkok, even as a last ditch.

So I can’t comment on a tuk tuk experience in Bangkok. Generally I like the “comfort” of a meter running, which is quite reasonable in Bangkok, rather than haggling up front, especially since I’m not seasoned enough to know what a fair rate would be. For a newbie to Bangkok, I’d say tuk tuk is more of a novelty rather than a reliable means of transit.

I’m sure there’s a proper name for these guys and gals. A soi is a connecting street, normally much smaller than a boulevard, but can still be quite long. Part of Bangkok’s public transportation are (wo)men on motorbikes at either end of the soi. Simply hop on the back of a bike and they will shuttle you to the other end of the soi where you, in turn, hand them 10 baht for the ride (I’ve read to not even ask, but to just hand them the money). I haven’t had the chance to try, but moto-taxis have been helpful in other cities.
The main trains are the BTS (sky train) and the MRT (metro). Like KL, the tickets are not the same between the two, and they don’t share stations, though some stations are in proximity. The biggest shortcoming is that neither system services many of the huge attractions, like the Grand Palace and Wat Pho, in Banglamphu area near the river. In fact, only one BTS line runs west of the Sirat Expressway. The trains are also a bit pricey if your not traveling alone–sharing a cab can cost almost the same, and depending on traffic could be faster.

Ah Uber. It’s such a great idea, and it’s on the cusp of being very viable and useful in Bangkok. I’m not sure how acceptable it is to use (it was quite passé in Bali), but I always found myself juggling the taxi/Uber choice. Unlike Vietnam where Uber was very inexpensive, I found it to be on par with cab fares in Bangkok when prices weren’t surging, which means when prices surged (when did they not??) your surge factor is how much more you’d pay over a cab.

Uber is unreliable. Often after requesting for upwards of 5 minutes, there were no cars, even when surging. If you got a car, they were often over 10 minutes away from pickup. If the driver couldn’t find me, they’d cancel the trip. The benefits of Uber are that they come to you (eventually), you don’t need cash, and they use a smartphone map to get you to the destination that you specify, which leads me to…

Ok, so maybe we stayed at a somewhat obscure residence. But we were at the intersection of very notable streets, we were within 1 block of a BTS stop, and we had major landmarks around us (such as popular hotels and lesser known buildings like the US Embassy, which was less than 1km away). On multiple occasions, neither the hotel bellhop nor the taxi driver were able to comprehend any of the instructions to my destination. Three times I had to exit a taxi and find another mode of transit because they either could not figure out where I wanted to go, or how to get there if they finally understood my destination. Which brings me to…
Scratch that. I’m not asking anyone to decipher my Rand McNally and Christopher Columbus me to uncharted territories. All I asked is for you (cab driver who speaks no English) to look at the address written in Thai on the smartphone map, and make the blue dot (that’s us) follow the blue line (that’s the route) to the red pin (that’s the destination). It’s a game of connect the dots like that.
Not only can the cabbie decide if they run the meter, they can decide if they want your fare at all. Before you board a taxi, and even before you negotiate “rate”, as aforementioned you need to tell them your destination. Provided they know where to go and how to get there, they can choose if they want to drive there. Twice I had a cabbie wave me off, I’m guessing because the fare wouldn’t be worth the distance and traffic. This one is new on me.
The one time I had a local’s assistance to hail a cab, I had a cab in 30 seconds, the driver knew exactly where to go, and he used the meter. Speaking the language helps communicate your destination, but knowing the city and how much fare should be is invaluable. As a foreigner, I expect I would always be charged more, but I had locals tell me that simple 50 baht tuk tuk trips could cost an unknowing foreigner over 200 baht. I wouldn’t know how much I should be paying, even if I wasn’t going to get overcharged because “tourist”.

I was nearly late almost a half-dozen times because it took me 20-30 minutes to find a mode of transportation to go from A to B (yes to find, not to travel).

If you’re returning to your hotel, carry a business card from the hotel. I presume the driver could call and receive directions in Thai.

Use the train as much as possible. If you have to travel a long distance, especially during rush hour, ask a taxi to bring you to a train station. Then they won’t have to drive far, so they may take your fare, and you don’t have to worry about sitting in traffic with a running meter. This likely also works better than overpaying a tuk tuk.