Buses, Cars, Motorbikes and Pickup Trucks
If you're just a visitor, you'll probably not notice much about the traffic. Instead, I'm sure, your attention will be focused on the sights beyond. After all, it's a new experience, and almost everything will be different from where you came from. Then again, you're on holiday, so for the next few weeks you'll probably be indulging in the sand, sea and surf, delighting in the different sights to be seen and even, perhaps, the nightlife, with nary a care to the world.
But you still need to get around.
Public transport from the airport is quite efficient, though prices may vary considerably. You make your choice, and you may rant about it later, but touts exist in every country.
What the newly arrived visitor may not realise, however, is that access to many places in Bangkok has improved so much over the years that you can actually get to an appointment on time.
Public buses – air-conditioned or non-air-conditioned – are the best ways around the city as they travel the same route either way. What this means is that they can also go the 'wrong' way down a one-way street, as a poor chap crossing the road found out to his detriment just a couple of weeks ago. He was not the first, nor will he be the last.
Skytrain and Underground
The electric train system is the fastest point–to-point, but the routes are still rather limited. I did remember having seen some feeder bus services specifically for transport to the trains, but I believe it catered only for those people holding season tickets. I could be wrong.
Taxis are another option, best exercised in light traffic. The problem with using them is that they have to follow the one-way system in Bangkok, so sometimes it's better to opt for a ten minute walk than suffer a forty-minute taxi ride. The good thing about taxis these days is that they are metered. Make sure the driver uses it.
While the days of the unmetered taxi are gone, this is not so with the tuk-tuks.
These are the little open-air motorised tricycles that are so beloved of the first-time visitor, but every fare has to be negotiated. Many are the times you will pay to suffer in this contraption when a taxi ride would have been much better. Also beware the tuk-tuk driver from hell.
Transport options in Bangkok are wide and varied; you can get from anywhere to almost anywhere in the city no matter what the time of day. This, however, is sadly not the case once you're in the provinces.
To the provinces
Inter-provincial transport is also well-organised, with a price to suit every budget. Domestic flights between major provincial centers are reasonably frequent. This is extremely convenient if you can afford it and you won't be going too far out of town.
The next most efficient are the buses. You have the non-air-conditioned orange-coloured buses, affectionately known as 'Orange Crush'. They are usually manned with crazy drivers, with the equally manic conductors hanging out the door on one arm and waving for attention with the other, trying to spot potential passengers in the distance. They'll rush from one stop to the next, wait fifteen minutes there in the hope the bus will miraculously fill up, then quickly rush off again when they spot the next bus approaching in the rear-view mirror. If the approaching bus spots them, the race is on!
They are the cheapest option, but you will get people standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the aisle, with only a couple of ceiling fans that make a pathetic effort to circulate warm air around. Don't be surprised that the windows won't work in rainy weather.
A slight step up are the second-class air-conditioned buses. They too, unfortunately, allow people standing in the aisles for the shorter (i.e. less than 200 km) journeys.
I could never tell the difference between the first-class and second-class buses. Maybe the toilet on the first class service actually works.
The most decent of the lot are the VIP buses. You are guaranteed a seat and there will be nobody standing next to you. The toilet will work, as will the air-conditioning. You pay a little more but I think it's the best long-distance option.
Another trend that started a couple of years or so ago were the little minibus-to-the-province services. Most originate from the Victory Monument area and go as far down South as Hua Hin and (I think) as far up North to Nakhon Sawan. It is very convenient for those in the know. The more enterprising drivers give their mobile phone numbers to regular patrons.
Take the train? I won't bother unless it's the 'sprinter' service. The rest of the services will stop at almost every other station, so you're still better off taking the bus.
I remember seeing a couple of backpackers at the Lopburi station once. They were apparently going to wait at least two hours for the next train to Bangkok. As they didn't speak English and didn't seem to want to speak to anyone else, I did not tell them that they could have taken the bus instead and could have been in Bangkok by the time the train arrived.
The train services here do not work in the same way they do in Europe. Keep that in mind, unless you want the slow scenic route and want to sample ethnic hawker food at each stop.
In the boonies
Once you're out of town, mobility becomes rather limited unless you have your own means of transport. Since the ox-cart has basically faded out even in rural Thailand, the e-taan or 'iron buffalo' has taken over. This versatile vehicle – if it can be called such – does more than basic transport. They use it to haul things, plow the fields, and run generators. The basic vehicle consists of an open engine on a two-wheeled chassis with long handlebars and a trailer hitched behind. The wheels are powered by extremely long fan belts connected to the engine; these can be unhitched at the destination and connected up to other farm equipment such as water pumps, thus alleviating the need for another motor to specifically power it. The problem with this arrangement is that it makes extremely slow progress from point to point, and if it is being used for something else you can't go anywhere, can you? This is where other alternative transport is extremely desirable.
As a side note, if you do need to bring twenty people or so to the temple for a festive occasion, complete with drums, bells and Mekhong whisky, you pile all of them in the e-taan trailer. The merry-making, singing, slowly passing scenery and fresh air is an experience that could rival some of Bangkok's revolving restaurants. Plus the fact that, unlike the restaurant, you eventually arrive somewhere.
The motorcycle completes the equation for the rural transport dilemma. This is the second workhorse, where all sorts of trays and contraptions have been added on so you can transport at least four people at a time, three sacks of rice, even transport fodder for cattle – it is a necessity. Rural kids, from the time they are able to reach the ground from the seat, learn how to use it. Never mind the fact that they seldom even get out of first gear. The condition of some rural roads can make this quite a difficult to feat to achieve. Besides, while you're bouncing over the track, you'll probably hear the other motorcycle approaching long before you'll see it so you'll have time to take evasive action. Hell, if it's Somsak, maybe we'll just stop in the middle of the track for a quick chat and a roll-up ciggie or two.
A licence to operate this necessary piece of equipment is unheard of. Insurance? What's that?
The problem begins when the bright lights of the city beckon. Somsak (it could be Somchai, Prasert, whatever) has been working hard in the last nine months since he's arrived and has managed to put a down payment for a shiny new motorbike. It even came with a pretty pink plastic helmet the motorbike shop told him it was necessary to put on his head while riding. Within the first week he's quite frustrated as he's been stopped for riding down the wrong side of the road and not having a licence. No worries, I now know someone who'll get me one for about the same amount that I had to give to those guys-in-brown who stopped me. Besides, why should I learn how to ride one when I already know how?
The unfortunate thing now is that three months after his new purchase, Somsak has found out how to use the other four gears..
Now substitute Bangkok with Pattaya, Somsak with Sven, a shiny little motorbike with a crotch rocket, the wrong side of the road with.. Oh, sorry. It is the correct side of the road for them. See any similarities?
The pickup truck
In it's rural setting the pickup truck and the e-taan complement each other's existence. They both can go to places that the other may not be able to. You could get to the market much faster, and look! Air-conditioning!
A pickup truck meant that you had arrived. It is seen as a status symbol in the provinces. Useful, yes. It didn't matter that you could still only get it into first gear.
Back to Bangkok
Years ago, pickups were seldom seen in Bangkok. However, since the introduction of spacious cabs and a skewed tax structure (you pay a lot less for the pickup than a similarly equipped passenger vehicle), many motorcyclists took the plunge and upgraded to four wheels. Most opt for the most powerful in the range, but I for one don't see the logic of getting stuck in traffic in a three thousand cubic centimetre turbocharged engine and a single driver. The power has also gone to their heads (yes, both of them), but in Bangkok there's not a lot you can do in traffic.
It becomes another story when they adopt a similar driving style on their way home for the New Year, as some pickups do end up as prime examples of how one should not drive, adorning the front yard of the Highway Police station.
My comment on the people who buy passenger cars in Bangkok is that first, they are seen as a status symbol in the city. In a way this is a good thing, as they want to keep the car looking good, and want to be seen in it. This tends toward careful driving, and a little disdain for those who still drive pickups. However, I tend to be wary of your atypical compact car sporting the 'Hello Kitty' licence plate holders and the stuffed toys taking up half the space on the rear parcel shelf. It is very likely to contain a driver with a mobile phone glued to her ear. Avoid.
Another phenomenon is the rate at which the SUVs are putting on weight. I seem to remember a time when the term Sport Utility Vehicle was deemed a runabout that you'd quite happily take to the beach or the tennis club, where you did not have the need of a full size pickup to tote your load. The SUV today is based on the truck underpinnings, but with a much higher equipment level and a fully enclosed cab. They are being found frequently sharing parking spaces with the BMWs and Benzes in many of the better homes in Bangkok.
Perhaps their owners are trying to find their way back to their roots?
Excellent summary of transport options in the land of smiles!