It can feel overwhelming getting around Thailand’s biggest city, but gradual improvements in its public transport have seen the once-fabled Bangkok traffic jams shrink somewhat – but sadly not disappear entirely – as locals embrace a more interconnected system that’s quicker, cleaner and often cheaper too.
Naturally, it’s not perfect, and there will be still times when travelers will need to flag down a taxi or túk-túk (pronounced đúk đúk), particularly after midnight. When the sun is hottest, taking the BTS Skytrain, the MRT Metro, or even a Chao Phraya River ferry is preferable to walking or cycling any real distance. Don't try to cover too much ground in a day; Bangkok's heat and traffic will ensure that doing so is more of an ordeal than a holiday.
Here’s how to get around in Bangkok.
Bangkok has two major train networks which are the fastest and most convenient ways to get around 'new' Bangkok (Silom, Sukhumvit and Siam Square). Both networks are currently being extended in several directions to meet increasing commuter traffic, with completion deadlines staggered until 2023. Do note that eating or drinking is strictly prohibited on the BTS and MRT.
The elevated BTS, also known as the Skytrain (rót fai fáa), whisks passengers through ‘new’ Bangkok. It also has a link to the airport. The interchange between the two lines is at Siam station and trains run frequently from 6am to midnight. Fares range from 16B to 52B or 140B for a one-day pass. Most ticket machines only accept coins, but change is available at the information booths. Single journey tickets will be retained at an Automatic Gate when you exit.
BTS (Skytrain) travel passes
For travelers who plan to take more than three BTS rides in a single day, it's worth buying a one-day pass (140B), which allows the holder to take unlimited rides on the day it’s issued. These can be bought from any BTS ticket office.
Bangkok’s Metro, the MRT, is most helpful for people staying in the Sukhumvit or Silom area to reach the train station at Hua Lamphong. Fares cost from 16B to 42B. The trains run frequently from 6am to midnight. At some stops, your bags will need to be scanned or searched before you enter the station.
MRT (Metro) travel passes
If you're staying in Bangkok awhile or planning on using the MRT regularly, there are a number of multi-trip passes which can make your trips cheaper. Each pass lasts for 45 days and passengers can choose a pass for either the MRT Blue Line, the MRT Purple Line, or both lines together. Available at any MRT station, you can top-up the card with either 15-, 25-, 40- or 50-trips. Prices start from 450B for 15 trips.
Tips for taking the train in Bangkok
- Passengers should avoid sitting next to or touching monks on public transport.
- Do not occupy seats that are marked for monks, the disabled or the elderly, unless you fall under any of the categories.
- Thais will willingly offer their seats to children and the elderly. However, being glued to their mobile phones often makes passengers oblivious to the fact that there's a senior citizen or child standing next to them.
- Thais consider the floor dirty and are reluctant to place bags on the floor of public transport; they will urge you not to do so as well.
Although many first-time visitors are hesitant to use them, Bangkok’s taxis are – in general – new and comfortable and the drivers are courteous and helpful, making them an excellent way to get around. Taxis are also cheaper than túk-túks. All taxis are required to use their meters, which start at 35B, and fares to most places within central Bangkok cost 60B to 100B. Freeway tolls – 25B to 120B depending on where you start or end – must be paid by the passenger.
As an alternative, you can use an app-based taxi service like Grab Taxi or All Thai Taxi. The former is now by far the most popular way to get around town for Bangkokians. The Grab app is easy to download and to request a ride. Pin your location and destination and their JustGrab service will find the nearest vehicle for your journey. If you have a preference for a taxi, select GrabTaxi, while GrabCar is solely for private vehicles.
It's worth noting that only commercial taxis operating through Grab are legal, while private cars are not. In practice, however, much of Grab's rideload is made up of its fleet of privately owned cars, most of them owner-driven.
How to hail a taxi
Look for a taxi with an illuminated red or green light on the dashboard. Once you hop in and the driver turns on the meter, the light switches off, meaning the cab is now occupied. To hail a taxi Thai-style, stick out your arm and wave your hand, palm down, in an up-and-down motion.
Tips for taking a taxi in Bangkok
- Never agree to take a taxi that won’t use the meter; usually these drivers park outside hotels and in tourist areas. Simply get one that’s passing by instead.
- Once they've agreed to ply a route, Bangkok taxi drivers will not usually ‘take you for a ride’ as happens in some other countries; they make more money from passenger turnover.
- It’s worth keeping in mind that many Bangkok taxi drivers are in fact seasonal labourers fresh from the countryside and may not know their way around.
- If a driver refuses to take you somewhere, it’s probably because they need to return the hired cab before a certain time, not because they don’t like how you look.
- Very few Bangkok taxi drivers speak much English, so an address written in Thai can help immensely. Many hotels have business cards with the address printed in Thai.
- Older cabs may be less comfortable but typically have more experienced drivers because they are driver-owned, as opposed to the new cabs, which are usually hired. In general, yellow-green or white-pink cabs tend to be driven by experienced self-owned drivers, while taxis of other colors tend to be driven by hired hands of varying experience.
Bangkok’s iconic túk-túk (pronounced đúk đúk; motorised three-wheel taxis) are used by Thais for short hops. For foreigners, however, these emphysema-inducing machines are part of the Bangkok experience, so despite the fact that they overcharge outrageously and you can’t see anything due to the low roof, pretty much everyone takes a túk-túk at least once.
Túk-túk are notorious for taking little ‘detours’ to commission-paying gem and silk shops and massage parlours. En route to ‘free’ temples, you’ll meet ‘helpful’ locals who will steer you to even more rip-off opportunities. Ignore anyone offering too-good-to-be-true 20B trips on 'special days'.
The vast majority of túk-túk drivers ask too much from tourists (expat fa·ràng never use them). Expect to be quoted a 100B fare, if not more, for even the shortest trip. Try bargaining them down to about 50B for a short trip, preferably at night when the pollution (hopefully) won’t be quite so bad. Once you’ve done it, you’ll find that taxis are cheaper, cleaner, cooler and quieter.
Two prominent fleets of boats, one that runs along the Chao Phraya River and the other along canals, serve Bangkok's commuters via the city's waterways. Both are handy for travelers too, particularly for visiting sights in the center of the city.
These are canal taxi boats that run along Khlong Saen Saep (Banglamphu to Ramkhamhaeng) and are an easy way to get between Banglamphu and Jim Thompson House, the Siam Square shopping centers (get off at Sapan Hua Chang Pier for both) and other points further east along Thanon Sukhumvit – after a mandatory change of boat at Pratunam Pier.
These boats are mostly used by daily commuters and pull into the piers for just a few seconds – jump straight on or you’ll be left behind. Fares range from 12B to 15B and boats run from 5.30am to 7.15pm from Monday to Friday, from 6am to 6.30pm on Saturday and from 6am to 6pm on Sunday.
Chao Phraya Express Boat
The Chao Phraya Express Boat operates the main ferry service along the Chao Phraya River. The central pier is known as Sathorn/Central Pier or Saphan Taksin, and connects to the BTS at Saphan Taksin station.
Boats run from 6am to 7pm. Hold on to your ticket as proof of purchase (an occasional formality). The most common boats are the orange-flag vessels. These run from Wat Rajsingkorn in the south to Nonthaburi in the north, stopping at all major piers. Fares are a flat 15B, and boats run frequently from 6am to 7pm. Green-flag and yellow-flag boats skip a few piers along the way and are thus slightly quicker than the orange-flag vessels. They are fewer in number, though.
A blue-flagged tourist boat (60B, every 30 minutes from 9.30am to 5.30pm) runs from Sathorn/Central Pier to Phra Athit/Banglamphu Pier, with stops at major sightseeing piers. A 200B all-day pass is also available, but unless you plan on doing a lot of boat travel, it's not great value.
Cross-river ferries and private long-tail boats
There are also dozens of cross-river ferries, which charge 3B and run every few minutes until late at night. Private long-tail boats can be hired for sightseeing trips at Phra Athit/Banglamphu Pier, Chang Pier, Tien Pier and Oriental Pier.
Motorcycle taxis (known as motorsai) serve two purposes in traffic-congested Bangkok. Most commonly and popularly, they form an integral part of the public-transport network, running from the corner of a main thoroughfare, such as Thanon Sukhumvit, to the far ends of soi (streets) that run off that thoroughfare. Riders wear colored, numbered vests and gather at either end of their soi, usually charging 10B to 20B for the trip. Helmets are available for pillion riders, but their hygiene is questionable.
The other obvious purpose of motorsai is to beat the traffic, given their ability to slide through bumper-to-bumper jams. Just tell your rider where you want to go, negotiate a price (from 20B for a short trip up to about 150B going across town), strap on the helmet and say a prayer to any god you’re into.
While nearly everyone relies on them, motorsai have a mixed reputation. On a daily basis, it's quite common for riders to slip through red lights, treat the pavement as a bike lane and flout traffic rules. App-based motorsai, such as GrabBike, will charge based on distance.
You'll notice very few Thais walking around in Bangkok, and it doesn't take long to see why: hot weather, pollution, footpaths clogged with vendors and motorcycles, and the sheer expanse of the city make walking one of the least convenient ways to get around. If you do wish to walk though, you'll be able to get under Bangkok's skin and explore the city in a way that few others are able to. It's not a very enjoyable experience, but can be a most rewarding one.
Many of Bangkok's footpaths are laid with concrete tiles that often come loose from the masonry. During the monsoons, rainwater seeps under these tiles and turns them into seasonal water mines of sorts. Step unevenly on a tile, and you'll be squirted with a jet of water pushed out of the cracks by the pressure of your step. It's a nasty surprise, to say the least, and will leave your trousers soiled and shoes soggy.
Bangkok’s public buses are run by the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority. As the routes are not always clear, and with Bangkok taxis being such a good deal, you’d really have to be pinching pennies to rely on buses as a way to get around Bangkok.
However, if you do want to take the bus, there are route maps in English available from most 7-Eleven stores and book shops. Air-con bus fares range from 12B to 25B; fares for fan-cooled buses start at 10B. Most of the bus lines run between 5am and 10pm or 11pm, except for the ‘all-night’ buses, which run from 3am or 4am to midmorning.
Many buses still use conductors and, as such, you’ll need to pay one once you’ve found a seat. However on select routes, the Bangkok Mass Transit Authority now lets passengers pay by credit or debit card – just press your card against the electronic reader when you board – or BMTA top-up cards, which can be purchased from major bus stops. Some buses do sell top-up cards, but it’s easier to purchase one and add credit before boarding.
How to hail a bus
Drivers will only pull over at a bus stop if a passenger is alighting or someone has waved the bus down. When you see the bus you require, stick out your arm and wave your hand, palm down, in an up-and-down motion. The driver should then pull over to let you board.
Over the past few years, cycling has exploded in popularity in Bangkok. Bike sales are booming and a 23km bicycle track that circles Suvarnabhumi International Airport is steadily gaining popularity as a weekend activity among the city's cyclists. There's even a bike-share initiative – look for the pavement-side stands on the city's major thoroughfares branded 'Pun Pun'.
Despite all this, however, dangerous roads, traffic, heat and pollution mean that Bangkok is still far from a safe or convenient place to use a bicycle as a means of transportation. Despite the city boasting more than 350km of bike lanes, many are blocked by parked túk-túks and errant food stalls. Motorcyclists are also an issue as they’re known to use the lanes as a shortcut for nipping through traffic jams.
Short-term visitors will find parking and driving a car in Bangkok more trouble than it is worth. If you need private transport, consider hiring a car and driver through your hotel or hire a taxi driver that you find trustworthy.
If you still want to give it a go yourself, all the big car-hire companies have offices in Bangkok, as well as counters at Suvarnabhumi and Don Mueang International Airports. Rates start at around 1200B per day for a small car, including full insurance.
A passport plus a valid driving licence from your home country (with English translation if necessary) or an International Driving Permit are required for all rentals. Thailand's cars have steering wheels on the right, akin to British and Australian cars.
Getting around Bangkok with babies or children
Bangkok isn’t the most child-friendly city to get around, however it is doable. The BTS (Skytrain) has elevators that can accommodate pushchairs at and most major MRT (Metro) stations have elevators. Taxis are omnipresent, but can’t provide car seats for babies and toddlers. With poor pavements, a sling to carry very young ones might be preferable.
Accessible transportation in Bangkok
Thailand presents one large, ongoing obstacle course for the mobility impaired. In Bangkok, many streets must be crossed on pedestrian bridges flanked with steep stairways, while buses and boats don’t stop long enough even for the fully abled.
Ramps or access points for wheelchairs are rare, and given their high kerbs, uneven footpaths and nonstop traffic, roads can be difficult to negotiate.
The MRT (Metro) networks, however, do incorporate elevators, ramps and toilets for the mobility impaired at all stations. The BTS (Skytrain) only has wheelchair access at the following stations: Asok; Bang Chak; Bang Na; Bang Wa; Bearing; Chong Nonsi; Krung Thon Buri; Mo Chit; On Nut; Pho Nimit; Punnawithi; Talat Phlu; Udom Suk; Wongwian Yai; and Wutthakat.
Download Lonely Planet's free Accessible Travel guide to find out more.