For those lucky enough to live in Bangkok 30-odd years ago - then a city with beautiful tree-lined canals and hardly a tourist in sight - the idea of a Mass Transit System was just the stuff of wishful drinking in local bars. In those halcyon days of bobbing boats and creaking buses, public transportation gave little indication of a high-tech future. Taxis were rusting relics, where wise passengers held the passenger door in place to prevent possible fall out en route. Air conditioned cabs were an unthinkable luxury, as was the vision of an elevated rail system snaking its way through the disorganised jungle of city structures. A Tube, London style, was considered ’impossible’ since according to the experts, regular flooding and the muddy clay soil of the Thai capital precluded any underground railway.
But what a difference technology, an economic boom, political will, and a quarter of a century can make. Bangkok now boasts a Skytrain (BTS), a Subway (MRT), and an Airport Rail Link the latter of standards which puts the London Underground to shame.
The BTS, MRT, and the Airport Rail Link links most main suburban centres and Suvarnabhumi International Airport.
The elevated BTS solved most of its logistical problems by being built directly above the main city centre roads of Silom and Sukhumvit, and the two lines are named after them with an interchange at Siam Centre (Siam). To minimise chaos, the hundreds of huge spans were pre-cast outside the city, with the resulting jigsaw of segments trucked into place over many months in the middle of the night. Local people would wake up to darkened pavements outside, ugly concrete structures began to obstruct familiar skylines, and purists progressively puffed their disapproval.
Destinations which before could take hours now took minutes on the electric trains running quietly on welded tracks, and serving some of the most congested areas in the Thai capital. It provides comprehensive tourist information, maps, excursions, souvenirs and gifts, and even WiFi at the BTS Tourist Information Centres.
This comes in addition to the total of over 23 kilometres of excellent, user-friendly transportation, running efficiently from 06:00 to midnight at an average speed of 35 kph - slow enough to absorb the fascinating ever-changing views. The driver announces the upcoming station name in Thai and English just before the train arrives. Fares depend on distance. There are a variety of packaged ticketing options, but the best bet for sightseeing is the 1-day unlimited travel pass. The BTS stations are enhanced by pleasingly creative designs, and equipped with many thoughtful facilities, including a first aid room. The BTS has interchange stations with the MRT and the Airport Rail Link, and to top off the convenience, free shuttle buses link several stations with key destinations in the respective areas. Escalators are at all stations. Most popular stops for visitors are as follows:
Asok: For the Siam Society research library and Khamtieng House, an old Chiang Mai residence. For shoppers: Terminal 21 and Times Square. Interchange here with Sukhumvit MRT Station.
Chidlom: A convenient place to shop with walkway connections to Central Chidlom, Amarin Plaza, Gaysorn Shopping Centre, Central World, and the fascinating Erawan Shrine.
National Stadium: A short walk brings you to the huge and fascinating chaos of Mahboonkrong Centre or MBK, with its bewildering buy-anything bargain stalls. It is the closest station to Jim Thompson’s house.
Phrom Phong: Linked to Emporium and Emquartier, shop and have fun for hours.
Phaya Thai: Visit this busy, crowded shopping area.
Mochit: The stop for the huge weekend market of Chatuchak, with its extraordinary kaleidoscope of products. Go early to beat the heat. Interchange here with Chatuchak Park MRT Station.
Siam: (Get off here to go to another BTS line) A trendy shopping area with a walkway into Siam Centre and Siam Paragon, leading out to the maze of smaller shops in Siam Square’s lanes and alleyways. Also close to this station are cinemas and bookstores.
Sala Daeng: Linked to Central Silom Complex, this area offers a wide variety of shopping by day, and is packed with roadside stalls at night. It is the closest station to Patpong Night Market and entertainment areas. Interchange here with Silom MRT Station.
Saphan Taksin: This terminal station links to ferries on the Chao Phraya River, with convenient connections to the "Chao Phraya Express " boats that go northwards to the jetties serving the Grand Palace area (Tha Maharat, Tha Tien, Tha Chang or Tha Phra Chan) Alighting at Thai Tien jetty gives you access to a smaller ferry boat to visit Wat Arun across the river.
MRT Underground Train
Officially called the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) and in Thai as “rot fai fah mahanakhon ("metropolitan electric train") or more often as the rot fai tai din ("underground train") the line operates from 06:00 to 24:00), and extends in a wide loop.
It has interchanges with the BTS stations. To protect against periodic flooding, station entrances are elevated above ground, and equipped with built-in floodgates. To prevent accidents and suicides, a glassed-in Automatic Platform Screen Door separates the platform and track, and opens only when the trains pull in and stop. All stations feature lifts and ramps for disabled people.
As with the BTS, there are a number of ticket types, which only need to be held close to the ticket barriers to operate them, thanks to a proximity sensor. Tokens are used for single journeys. There are unlimited 1-day tickets.
The Main Bangkok Subway Stations
Silom: Major shopping area, connecting to Central Silom Complex. Walking distance to the nightlife and street market area of Patpong. Interchange with Sala Daeng BTS Station.
Lumphini: Close to the Suan Lum Night Bazaar, the Lumpini Boxing Stadium and to several foreign missions, including the Australian, Austrian, Belgian, Danish, French and German Embassies.
Queen Sirikit Convention Centre: Bangkok’s main venue for exhibitions and trade shows.
Sukhumvit: Terminal 21 and Soi Cowboy. Interchange with the BTS Asok Station.
Phetchaburi: Near the Japanese Embassy and connects to Airport Link Makkasan Station.
Rama 9: Fortune Town and Central Rama 9
Thailand Cultural Centre: Close to the Chinese Embassy, Big C Extra, and Esplanade.
Chatuchak: Explore the Chatuchak Weekend Market and take a stroll through Benjathas Park (Suan Rot Fai).
Kamphaeng Phet: The stop for "Farmers Market" - excellent and inexpensive fruit and vegetable produce here.