Chah chaa 'Slowly', a term you'll probably have to use with a Bangkok taxi driver at some point.
BTS Also known as the Skytrain, Bangkok's above-ground train system.
MRT Bangkok's metro system.
Motorsai The colloquial name for motorcycle taxis.
Soi A small street or sub-street.
Thanon A street.
Tollway A paid expressway.
Túk-túk Pronounced đúk đúk, it's a type of motorised rickshaw.
The elevated BTS, also known as the Skytrain (rót fai fáa), whisks you through ‘new’ Bangkok (Silom, Sukhumvit and Siam Sq). The interchange between the two lines is at Siam station and trains run frequently from 6am to midnight. Fares range from 16B to 44B or 140B for a one-day pass. Most ticket machines only accept coins, but change is available at the information booths.
Bangkok’s Metro, the MRT is most helpful for people staying in the Sukhumvit or Silom area to reach the train station at Hualamphong. Fares cost from 16B to 42B or 120B for a one-day pass. The trains run frequently from 6am to midnight.
Motorcycle taxis (known as motorsai) serve two purposes in 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 Th Sukhumvit, to the far ends of sois (lanes) that run off that thoroughfare. Riders wear coloured, numbered vests and gather at either end of their soi, usually charging 10B to 20B for the trip (without a helmet unless you ask).
Their other purpose is as a means of beating the traffic. You 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 (they will insist for longer trips) and say a prayer to any god you’re into.
It’s Friday rush hour in Bangkok and traffic is bumper-to-bumper as far as the eye can see. You need to be somewhere – fast. Assuming you don’t have a police escort, the only way out is to hop on the back of a fearless motorcycle taxi, known as a motorsai. Hang on tight as your orange-vested driver weaves past belching trucks, zips down tiny back-alleys and, when all else fails, treats the pavement as a bike lane. Even the niftiest túk-túk (pronounced đúk đúk) struggles to keep up with a motorsai.
Motorsai are an essential lubricant for Bangkok’s congested streets, with an estimated 200,000 on the road. They gather at street corners in ranks known as win. As well as transporting people and goods, they double as messengers for private companies. Since they can drive down narrow soi, motorsai are often the only form of public transport in parts of the city, providing the last leg of bus and train commutes. This is particularly true when there’s no Skytrain or subway line.
Not all motorsai journeys are mad dashes across town. Plenty of people use them to putter up and down their soi, to run local errands and visit friends. But their finest hours come when traffic is so backed up that a regular taxi or bus just won’t do – there’s something exhilarating about passing a $50,000 BMW caught in a snarl-up.
Yet while nearly everyone relies on them, motorsai have a mixed reputation. Bangkokians swap hair-raising stories of drunken or reckless drivers who should be behind bars. Most parents shudder at the idea that their daughter might bring one home (nearly all are male). Then there’s the underworld aspect: motorsai ranks are typically run by moonlighting cops or soldiers, a shady practice that former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra tried to stamp out in 2003. He didn’t quite succeed, but he won the loyalty of drivers who were fed up with paying their bosses for protection. Most drivers originally come from northeastern Thailand, where Thaksin’s brand of economic populism made him a political rock star.
This loyalty to Thaksin, who lost power in 2006, is why motorsai drivers were so active in the Red Shirt protests that convulsed Bangkok in 2009 and 2010. As well as joining mass demonstrations, drivers used their bikes to transport supplies into protest camps, bring Red Shirt guards to the front lines and to keep tabs on troop movements. Journalists also relied on nimble motorsai to get them in and out of danger zones, particularly when the army moved in during May 2010.
Since then, some drivers have tried to steer a more neutral path through Thailand’s colour-coded politics. They prefer to be seen as orange shirts, not Red Shirts (or Yellow Shirts). Their orange vests can be valuable property. Although each numbered vest is supposed to stay with its registered owner, drivers trade or sell them, fetching prices of up to 150,000B on busy corners or in posh neighbourhoods. An average motorsai earns 400B to 500B a day. That isn’t far off the salary of an office worker, but the hours are longer and the work more hazardous. Drivers must also pay for petrol and maintain their own motorcycle.
Motorsai first became popular in the 1980s as the city spread rapidly outwards and commuters found themselves stranded far from public transport. The peculiar layout of Bangkok – narrow soi, big roads, lots of dead ends – meant that motorcycles had the edge. Like so much of Bangkok’s workings, it was an ad hoc response to a failure of central urban planning. Bangkok may be the world’s least planned yet most liveable city – and its motorsai drivers are the unsung heroes who help make it that way.
Simon Montlake, Asia-based journalist
You'll notice very few Thais walking around in Bangkok, and it doesn't take long to see why: hot weather, pollution, uneven or nonexistent footpaths, footpaths clogged with vendors and motorcycles and the sheer expanse of the city make walking one of the least convenient ways to get around.