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. "Subway - no way" was the saying. Decades passed, and apart from each successive governmental promising to ’definitely do something about the traffic problem’ nothing happened, except that the lovely canals slowly surrendered to roads, huge numbers of vehicles poured on to them every year, and the situation became increasingly hopeless.
But what a difference technology, an economic boom, political will, and a quarter of a century can make. Bangkok now boasts both a Skytrain, and a Subway (Metro) the latter of standards which puts the London Underground to shame. "Tony Blair should come and see this" I overheard an admiring English tourist say. He should indeed.
The Skytrain (Mapped as the Green Line) and The Metro (Mapped as the Blue Line) will be further extended, and together they mark the beginning of the ambitious Bangkok Rail Transit Network, which, together with the State Railways, will link most main suburban centres, including a fast rail service with the new Suvarnabhumi International Airport, scheduled to open in 2008.
The BTS Skytrain
The elevated Skytrain 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.
But when the system opened on the 5th December 1999, the King’s 72nd birthday, a wave of pride swept the city as the sleek air-conditioned carriages began to glide gracefully above the traffic jams an average of 14 metres below. 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. This US$1.3 billion so-called Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS) Skytrain or Rot Fai Fah ("train in the sky") in Thai, is a must-see, must-try visitor attraction in its own right. It provides comprehensive tourist information, maps, excursions, souvenirs and gifts, and even internet facilities at the BTS Tourist Information Centres (open daily from 8.00 am to 8.00 pm Siam, Nana and Saphan Taksin stations).
This comes in addition to the total of over 23 kilometres of excellent, user-friendly transportation, running efficiently from 6am 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, currently 10-40 Baht. There are a variety of packaged ticketing options, but the best bet for sightseeing is the 1-day unlimited travel pass, at present costing 100 baht. The 23 Skytrain stations are enhanced by pleasingly creative designs, and equipped with many thoughtful facilities, including a first aid room. Unless you have a helicopter, there is no better way to view the city. The Skytrain has three interchange stations with the "Metro" or Bangkok Underground, and to top off the convenience, free shuttle buses link several stations with key destinations in the respective areas. Escalators are planned at all stations. At present however, some of the smaller stations are accessible by staircase only. The most popular stops for visitors are as follows:
Asoke: For the Siam Society research library and Khamtieng House, an old Chiang Mai residence. For shoppers: Robinson Department Store, and Times Square. Interchange here with Underground Sukhumvit station
Chidlom: A convenient shop-stop, with walkway connections to Central Department store, Amarin Plaza, Gaysorn Plaza Central, Central World Plaza, 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. The closest station to Jim Thompson’s house, located in a small lane opposite the Stadium.
Phrom Pong: Linked to a large elegant department store - the Emporium - which offers hours of shopping and recreational possibilities.
Phya Thai: Alight here to visit Suan Pakkad Palace Victory Monument: Busy, crowded shopping area mainly used by locals.
Morchit: The stop for the huge weekend market of Chatuchak, with its extraordinary kaleidoscope of products. Go early to beat the heat. Interchange here with Underground Chatuchak station
Siam: (Change here for the Skytrain Silom Line) A trendy shopping area with a walkway into Siam Centre shopping mall, leading out to the maze of smaller shops in Siam Square’s lanes and alleyways. Also close to this station, cinemas, bookstores, and The British Council.
Saladang: Linked to Central Department store’s Silom Road branch, this area offers a wide variety of shopping by day, and is packed with roadside stalls at night. It is the closest station to Pat Pong night market and entertainment area. Interchange here with Underground Silom Station
Saphan Taksin: This terminal station links to ferries on the Chao Phraya River, with convenient connections to the "Chaophya 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.
The MRT Bangkok Metro Underground
The ’impossible’ became a reality in April 2004. It had taken seven years to build, comprising 21 kilometres of bored tunnels, with 18 simultaneously-built stations, using top-down techniques up to 30 metres deep under the city’s major roads. The cost was approximately US$ 2.75 billion.
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 6am to midnight , and extends in a wide loop from the main railway station of Hualumpong, then tracks back via the Queen Sirikit National Convention Centre to the smaller rail station of Bang Sue (pronounced Seu) to the north.
It has interchanges with the Skytrain at Si Lom, Sukhumvit and Chatuchak Park 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 Skytrain, 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. An unlimited 1 day go-as-you please travel ticket currently costs Baht 120. A joint ticketing system for the Subway and Skytrain is planned.
The Main Bangkok Subway Stations
(Bracketed figures indicate the depth underground) Hua Lamphong (14
metres) Bangkok’s main railway station serving all provinces. Permanent and interesting exhibition here about the Subway, and Thai transportation.
Silom (30 metres) Major shopping area, close to Robinson and Central Department Stores. Walking distance to the nightlife and street market area of Patpong. Interchange with Saladaeng Skytrain station
Lumphini (26 metres) Close to the Suan Lum Night Market, the Lumpini Thai Boxing Stadium and to several foreign missions, including the Australian, Austrian, Belgian, Danish, French and German Embassies.
Queen Sirikit Convention Centre (17 metres) Bangkok’s main venue for exhibitions and trade shows.
Sukhumvit (17 metres) Robinson Department Store and ’Soi Cowboy’ nightlife area nearby. Interchange with the Asoke Skytrain station.
Phetburi (20 metres) Close to the Japanese Embassy at the junction of Phetchburi Road and Asoke.
Rama 9 (18 metres) Fortune Town shopping centre, IT Mall and Tesco Lotus.
Thailand Cultural Centre (19 metres) Close to Chinese Embassy, Carrefour, and Robinson Department Stores
Chatuchak (17 metres) This is Chatuchak Park, not the famous weekend market, which is the next stop. Interchange with the Morchit Skytrain station.
Kamphaengphet (17 metres) The stop for Chatuchak Weekend Market, and the "Farmers Market" - excellent and inexpensive fruit and vegetable produce here.
Bang Sue (12 metres) Suburban State Railway station, located between Hua Lamphong main station and Don Muang Airport.
Beware of "Other Magic"
Before venturing out to experience the city, visitors should remember the Golden Rule:
Local people are basically shy, and reserved. No
honest Thai person will approach you directly in a public place to offer
unsolicited help, sightseeing tips, or advice. If this happens (and
it is very likely when you visit tourist sites) politely ignore the person
- or enter into a conversation at your peril. He is a con man.