A Year in Bangkok – Public Transport

19 03 2011

Getting to town from the apartment block where I used to live is easy and cheap so long as you avoid the roads – sometimes the traffic seems to just stand still for an hour at a time. I struggled along these roads until a chance meeting led me to be introduced to the wonderful but often rancid canal (Bangkok was once called the Venice of the east) along which operate water buses. My local pier is just five minutes walk away and, for about ten pence, I can get a water bus to the nearest underground station or straight into the main shopping centre for the princely sum of twelve pence. By using water, underground and sky train (an overhead rail system) I can move around town very quickly and enjoy the air conditioning of the train systems. Actually, the air conditioning on the train systems can be quite vicious and, when I have got on one whilst still wet after being caught in some of the Bangkok rain, it was far too cold and had me in shivers. A word of warning about the water buses too – keep your mouth shut! Every now and then, you get a face full of canal water and I dread to think what that might contain. I have often seen drowned cats and dogs in the water and, on one occasion very early in the morning I even saw a human corpse bobbing along. You can also see wildlife in there, I once saw a huge python which must have been two metres long and it is fairly common to see monitor lizards working the banks. They always seem to do this in pairs and if I see one now, I always look for the other one which is usually just a few metres away. They have very small heads and it is always a surprise to me when I see the end of a monitor lizard’s tail and realize how long the animal is for such a small head.

The water bus.

Amazingly to me, in the hot summer weather, people swim in the canals. Goodness only knows what diseases one could catch doing that. Sometimes, I just can’t cope with the noxious smells on the water so I then get the ‘little red bus’ to my nearest sky train station at a cost of five pence. It always seems like a miracle that these ancient buses, which have long since lost their doors and various other parts, continue to run. I’ve also learnt to take care on the pavements which the motorcyclists see as extensions to the road. On the rare stretches of pavement which are both wide and clear you need to be extra vigilant as it is entirely possible that a car driver will decide it is a handy way to move an extra ten metres up the ever static traffic queue. Pavements are also restaurants and places to sell your wares so there’s not much room left for the humble pedestrian.

Motor cycle taxi.

Transport generally is very different from back home. Motor cycle taxis are a common form of public transport here too. You can’t hail one like a normal taxi but have to go to one of their stands. They are fairly obvious as you’ll see lots of motor cycles and men in brightly coloured singlets with Thai numbers on the back. Just as the Thai alphabet is different to ours, so are the numbers. In central Bangkok, the motorcycle taxi drivers’ singlets are dayglo orange. These have to be one of the most dangerous forms of public transport, often called Bangkok helicopters by people here. In this city and in this traffic I occasionally decide, pervertedly maybe, to put my life in someone else’s hands by taking one of these motor cycle taxis. Usually, I only take such a risk if the traffic is at a complete standstill, especially as crash helmets are not usually available unless you carry your own. One reason I don’t like them is the death count of people I have known, which currently stands at three, or maybe four. I don’t know what became of the fourth who, after he came off a bike, I went to see in intensive care in the Camillian hospital near where I live and I couldn’t recognize him. His head had been shaved and cut open then stitched up again.  Various parts of his body were encased in plaster and several tubes were attached to other parts of his body. The last I heard of him, he was flown to England for further treatment.

Song Thaew.

Another form of public transport is the song thaew (thaew is pronounced the same as the beginning of the English word town) and quite literally means ‘two long seats’. No surprises then that this is a pick up truck with a bench down each side. Just like regular buses, they have a set route and use the normal bus stops. At busy times, they cram as many people as possible into them and it is quite a sight to see them traveling through the city traffic with several people hanging off the back of them. Song thaew drivers are like most other drivers of public transport here: they are protected by the Lord Buddha so the quality of their driving is not an issue. Above the driver’s seat you will see various symbols from the time the vehicle was blessed by the local monks.

Song Thaew.

When you use a song thaew, or any other form of public transport here, you should really try to forget about the driving and just enjoy the scenery if you possibly can. And, if you are in the countryside, there is usually some fairly spectacular scenery to enjoy. You will sit in one of the two long rows in the back, under a metal frame usually covered by thin aluminium sheets but possibly covered by canvas or plastic. You will share your seat with market traders and their chickens or other stock and with men armed with amazingly long hunting rifles which always look home-made to me. The driver will squeeze as many people in as he can, regardless of your comfort or even of your ability to breathe. I have been told that only boys or men are allowed to hang off the back of the song thaew, they don’t let women or girls do this. In practice though, I often see women and girls hanging off the back of them in rush hour Bangkok. It isn’t really a comfortable ride but it is always interesting. Forget about the po-faced passengers on British buses, here you are practically sat on each others’ laps and everybody is friendly and smiley about it.

Tuk Tuk.

As for the driver, he seems to believe that his is the only vehicle on the road. Either that, or he believes that the blessing the monks gave his vehicle provides divine protection. He will swerve into the oncoming traffic to pass another vehicle or an animal totally regardless of what might be heading for him, and therefore equally regardless for us squashed into the back. If another vehicle is heading our way, then the driver assumes he is hallucinating and presses on. We always seem to miss the oncoming vehicle but it’s so close we can see the whites of the eyes of its occupants and occasionally even count their fillings. The driver doesn’t even notice, flying along smoking his cigarette and listening to luk thung music (Isaan country music) at full volume on his CD player. The tyres are usually bald but that doesn’t matter as the drivers don’t seem to know how to use their brakes and simply accelerate if they ever notice a potential problem on the road.

Motor cycle taxi stand.

Outside Bangkok, rickshaws are very common. In Thailand, it is called a samlor which means ‘three wheels’ and they all seem to be operated by stringy older men with great leg muscles. They are a cheap form of transport and you often see people going home from the market in these, complete with enough shopping to stock the average supermarket. I love seeing these, especially as they have disappeared from Bangkok where they evolved into the infamous tuk-tuks, originally called motorized samlors but renamed because of the sound made by the two stroke engines which were a great help in contributing to the appalling level of pollution in Bangkok. Tuk-tuks now run on gas and cause much less damage to the environment. I used them when I came here on holiday but have only rarely been in one since coming to live here. Because they are a bit of a tourist attraction, I find they tend to be a relatively expensive option.

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2 responses

2 04 2011
Stave Michael

I so love to go visit Bangkok one of these days. Thanks for the great posts. 🙂

2 04 2011
Ben Salmons

Thanks Stave, hope to see you here one day.

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