Monday, March 28, 2011

Bus Stop in Bangkok

Bangkok has a bewildering variety of city buses in many colors, some with air-conditioning and some with only windows that usually open and fans which occasionally work.  If the traffic is not too band, they might even stop for you.

Many of the blue, red, orange, pink, white and yellow buses are banged up and well worn while others are brand spanking new.  Like the multicolored taxis on every street in the city, they run on clean natural gas fuel.  The Bangkok Mass Transit Authority (BMTA) operates most of them, but there are also numerous privately-owned buses, with some traveling along the same routes with government buses.  Most of the online descriptions of the bus system I've looked up are out of date (see here, here and here).  Transit Bangkok, however, has an excellent web site with route maps that are useful but could be confusing without previous experience in getting around the city.  Tourists, other than on the Khao San Road-Siam Square routes, avoid Bangkok's buses like the plague and normally I am the only farang on board.

I've made a virtue out of necessity.  My first apartment was within walking distance of the Sukhumvit Sky Train (BTS) elevated line and the BTS, along with the less convenient subway (MRT) and the Chao Phraya River boats, served all my transportation needs.  The boats are scenic and relatively slow, and the trains are high-tech and modern, but none of these means of travel are cheap by Bangkok standards.  The poor ride the bus.  And the geographically challenged.  When I moved three years ago across the river to Pinklao (which I like to think of as the Brooklyn of Bangkok), I had no choice but to learn how to get around by bus. 

My expat friends were of no help.  Bev, who has lived here for most of the last 40 years, told me she never takes the bus.  Like my old friend Jerry, who has lived in Sukhumvit for 18 years, she finds the alternative, taxis, to be cheap and plentiful.  I expect that for them, as well as for most short-time visitors, the buses seem crowded and dirty and the absence of any signs or directions in English make traveling fraught with peril.  I turned to my Thai friends for tutoring, bought a couple of bus maps in Thai and English (they tear easily from use), and researched the numbers on the buses that stopped near my condo on Boromarajajonani Road.  I learned that the orange, air-conditioned 511 would take me all the way past Central World to Sukhumvit and that the 28, which comes in different colors and climates, went to Victory Monument where I could get on the Sky Train.  To get to the temple where I teach not far away, I take the number 40; when I began using that line, the green buses were small with cramped seats, and (so I was told by Thais) dangerous.  Now the green "turtles" have been replaced by roomier orange models.  To get home from school, I take 79 to the stop in front of Pata, the department store several blocks away from where I live, and walk home.  In the mornings, Nan takes any one of a number of buses to the river where she boards a boat to Saphan Taksin near her office.  Sometimes I join her, like this morning when I took the BTS from Saphan Taksin to Bumrungrad Hospital where Jerry has just had a pacemaker installed.

 Riding the Bangkok buses is frequently a challenge.  Traffic is unpredictable, and even though there are usually alternative routes to any destination, often I seem to pick the wrong one.  I've been locked in traffic for over an hour in the same block, and I've been forced to stand in crowded buses for even longer.  There are straps and bars to hold, but the roads can be bumpy and the jerking of stop and go traffic makes standing difficult.  Seats over the wheel well leave little room for a relatively long-limbed farang but sometimes they're the only choice.  Getting into buses is also a problem since the steps are apparently designed for giants.  Disembarking requires a calculated jump.  Getting buses to stop for you is not always easy.  If traffic is heavy, they might race toward the light at the intersection and ignore commuters at my stop who are making the upside down come-hither sign with their hand that is the Thai signal for: Stop!  When a bus does stop, it might be a couple of lanes away which requires you to navigate between taxis and motorbikes to reach the open doors.  Getting the bus to stop is easier.  You push the bell and wait for the doors to whoosh open.  If it stops in the midst of traffic, you take your chances getting to the curb.

I hope this doesn't read like a complaint.  I love traveling around Bangkok by bus and rarely feel inconvenienced by the crowds or the slow traffic.  Thais do not push and shove and usually queue politely (although not in a straight line like the British used to).  I'm more patient now that I have an iPod Touch and can listen to podcasts while I wait.  Many of the bus have been personalized by the drivers with pictures and flowers and even stuffed animals.  Often it seems that the driver and bus conductor are a couple and they bring their children along for the rides.  The air-conditioned buses are usually too chilly and I prefer to ride with the window open so I can see the all the always-intriguing sights of Bangkok and inhale the smells (air pollution has never seemed a big problem to me, after having grown up in Los Angeles where it was worse).

Bus travel is cheap, with most trips less than half the cost of the trains and the river boats.  Some red buses are free, due to a recent government decree designed to win the support of the poor, and others are 7 baht (the dollar is currently worth a little over 30 baht).  The little green buses and now the orange ones are 6.5 baht.  The blue buses with open windows are 8 baht and the air conditioned vary between 10-24 baht depending on the distance.  By comparison, express buses to the airport are 150 baht, the same price as the new elevated train.  Taxis start at 35 baht and on the rare occasions when I use them it costs about 75 baht to get home from events in the center of the city.

I've intended this blog post to be an appreciation of the Bangkok buses and not a guide to their use.  It's a life skill not easily gained by an expat but worth the study and work it takes.  Tourists and residents who live in Sukhumvit or Khao San and restrict their travel to points reached only by boat or train are wearing blinders and miss many of the riches of urban life in this Thai capital. Get on the bus.  It's worth the risk!


Janet Brown said...

What a delightful essay to wake up to--thank you, Will--brings back all kinds of bus memories. Best way to see and learn the city--

Ivan said...

Thanks for the info! I have been in Bangkok many time but have been wary of the bus system, always prefered to catch a motor scooter ( Not that that is a safe option) I will make a point in using them next time in town.

Sam said...

Nice one!

I'm also a bus user, sometimes from choice as I love poring over route maps.

You say: Thais do not push and shove and usually queue politely. Maybe so but they are rather good at snaking round in front of you.

My main beef is with the buses that don't really stop when you are getting on or off. Sometimes they are coming down so fast (either high on ya ba or playing chicken with another bus, or both) that I think they think it's an imposition to ask them to stop. If the bus hasn't actually come to a halt I will overplay the infirm old man and clomp heavily up the steps holding grimly on to the rail (if there is one).

Getting off is also sometimes a problem, especially when the bus is crowded. I find it safest to get off at the front door so the driver can see me and I will wait until the bus is stationary before alighting. Where there is only a central door this is still sometimes tricky.

None of us are getting any younger and I did once fall over getting into a bus. (This is all on the outskirts of Bangkok; I guess in the centre of town they don't move so fast.)

One last point re the shining new buses (yellow ones near me). They are great but it doesn't take long before the brakes are screeching like mad. I wonder what sort of maintenance routines are in place.

You might also enlighten me on the habits of the si lor drivers (small open sided buses with bench seats down the side facing each other). I am still concerned when they pull in along the route to fill up with gas while passengers are still aboard. I was once told this was dangerous and should step off the vehicle until it was filled up as there have been explosions in the past. Is this still true or is the fuel now completely safe?

Mr. Wright said...

I took a bus once...