Paul first visited Thailand in 1996 and has been retired in Siam since 2007. He has a beautiful and loving Thai wife and can speak Thai.
Bangkok Mass Rapid Transit
Bangkok mass rapid transit only really started to develop in 2000. Since the opening of the first elevated light rail rapid transit (Skytrain) lines on December 5, 1999, mass transit has gradually improved with the opening of a subway line in 2004, an elevated light rail link from the city to the new international airport, and openings of extensions of existing Skytrain lines in 2009, 2011, and 2018. It is easier to get around Bangkok today than it was in 1996 when I first arrived; however, there are still traffic jams, and it is inconvenient to get to certain parts of the city by mass transit.
This article will first summarize the state of mass transit in Bangkok today, and then discuss the elevated light rail in more detail, including the pros and cons of riding the Skytrain.
Mass Transit Prior to 2000
Before 2000 it was very frustrating and took a long time to get around central Bangkok. The primary modes of transportation were private cars, taxis, motorcycles, buses, "tuk-tuks," and "songthaews." "Tuk-tuks" and "songthaews" are peculiar to Southeast Asia. A "tuk-tuk" is a motorized rickshaw that can usually hold 2-4 passengers while a "songthaew" is a converted pick-up truck or larger truck which has a canopy and two rows of seating installed along the sides of the truck. It is used as a shared taxi and is popularly known by ex-pats as a "baht bus." Traffic jams were very common on Sukhumvit Road in the downtown area of Bangkok when I first visited here in 1996. During the early evening rush hour, it would often take one or two hours to travel one kilometer.
Mass Transit Since 2000
1. Elevated Light Rail aka Skytrain aka Bangkok Transit System (BTS)
In an attempt to alleviate traffic congestion and speed up the flow of traffic on the main inner-city arteries, the government began construction of the first elevated light rail rapid transit system in the late 1990s. On a trip to Thailand in 1997, I can recall seeing the construction of reinforced concrete pillars for the Skytrain in the center of Sukhumvit Road in the downtown tourist area. By December 1999, the first two lines of the Skytrain were opened. The Sukhumvit Line now runs from the Mo Chit Station in north-central Bangkok to the Bearing Station in the southeastern part of the city. Its length is 60 km and it passes through business and tourist areas on Sukhumvit and Pahon Yothin Roads. The smaller Saphan Taksin Line extends from the National Stadium Station to the Bang Wo Station across the Chao Phraya River in Thonburi. It passes through the central business district and the Si Lom tourist area.
From 2009 to 2011 extensions were completed to both the Sukhumvit and Saphan Taksin lines. On May 15, 2009, a short extension of the Saphan Taksin Line was opened. Trains now can run across the Chao Phraya River from the Saphan Taksin Station to the Bang Wo Station in Thonburi.
On August 12, 2011, a 5 km extension of the Sukhumvit Line was opened. Skytrains now run from the On Nut Station to the Soi Bearing Terminal Station which is on the border of Bang Na District in Bangkok and North Samrong in Samut Prakarn Province.
2. Subway aka Mass Rail Transit (MRT):
The initial construction of Bangkok's subway aka Mass Rail Transit began in 1996. On July 3, 2004, the first Blue Line 21 km in length from the railway station at Hua Lam Phong to Bang Sue in north-central Bangkok was opened. The Blue Line which includes 18 stations passes through business, tourist, and cultural areas. Some of its stations at Si Lom, Sukhumvit, and Chatchuchak are close to BTS stations making it easy to interchange to use the Skytrain. Constructions of extensions to the subway are now underway. Although there aren't as many riders as on the BTS, fares are still quite reasonable with a one-way ticket ranging from 16-41 baht. (approximately $0.50-$1.33)
3. Elevated Light Rail Suvarnabhumi Airport Link Rapid Transit aka SARL:
The SARL was constructed in response to the construction and opening of Bangkok's new international airport at Suvarnabhumi on September 28, 2006. Since the new airport is 25 km east of Bangkok, mass transit between Suvarnabhumi and Bangkok had to be improved. Construction began around 2005 and the SARL wasn't opened until 2010. The SARL now has two lines. One terminates in the city as an interchange with the BTS Phaya Tai Station in central Bangkok. The other line runs from the Makkasan City Air Terminal in the central part of the city to the airport. The SARL operates two express trains: one from Phaya Tai to the airport and the other from Makkasan to the airport. The journey is swift and takes about 15 minutes. A local city line from Phaya Tai to Suvarnabhumi also stops at six stations along the way. The total travel time is 35 minutes. I used the SARL in February of 2015 when I took a train from the Phaya Tai station in Bangkok to Suvarnabhumi Airport. The one-way fare was only 45 baht ($1.40.)
Pros and Cons of Riding the Skytrain
The Skytrain is very popular in Bangkok today as a means of mass transit. According to Wikipedia, it has a daily ridership of approximately 500,000. I have ridden the BTS many times since 2003 and have come away with mixed emotions. In my opinion, the pros and cons of riding the Skytrain are as follows:
Pros of Riding Bangkok's Skytrain:
BTS is very easy to use. Purchasing your ticket is a snap. After you go to the second level of a BTS station, you have the option of buying a single trip ticket or a stored value card which will give you a certain amount of trips for a certain fare. The stored value cards can be purchased at ticket booths where you can also exchange baht currency for coins that are needed to purchase single-trip tickets. It would help if you looked at a listing of the stations on a BTS line to determine your ticket fare. After you find the ticket fare for your station destination, you go to a ticket machine, press a button next to the required fare, and then deposit your coins into the slot to receive a ticket. After you get your ticket, you insert it into a slot at an access control turnstile gate. The card unlocks the turnstile and you retrieve it as you pass through the gate. You use your card again when you insert it into the access control turnstile gate at your exit destination. After passing through the access control gate, you take stairs or an escalator up to a third level where you board the trains.
2. Convenience and Quick Way to Travel:
The Skytrain is a convenient and quick way to travel, especially during rush hours and traffic jams. For me, a trip into central Bangkok by taxi or bus which would probably take 60-90 minutes during rush hours, would take 15-20 minutes by BTS. If your destinations are shopping malls, department stores, or entertainment complexes, you can't beat the convenience of the Skytrain in getting there. For example, if a tourist is staying in a hotel which is in the Si Lom area, he or she can board the BTS at the Sala Daeng Station and first get off at either the Siam or National Stadium Stations for shopping. Then, after transferring to the Sukhumvit Line at the Siam Station interchange, he or she can get off at either the Nana or Asoke stops for restaurants, nightclubs, or other adult entertainment. Sky bridges interconnect BTS stations to many shopping centers and department stores along both the Sukhumvit and Saphan Thaksin Lines. the BTS conveniently interconnects to the SARL at the Phaya Tai Station, BTS stations also interconnect to the MRT at the Sala Daeng, Asoke, and Mo Chit Stations.
3. Reasonable Fares:
If you are traveling with a friend or alone, the Skytrain is a reasonably inexpensive way to travel. Fares start at 15 baht ($0.50) and are no more than 50 baht. ($1.67) For example, the one-way fare from the Bearing Terminal Station at the edge of the Bang Na District to the Mo Chit Terminal Station in north-central Bangkok is only 50 baht. (about $1.67)
4. Environmental Friendly:
Since the Skytrain runs on electricity, there is no pollution with harmful gases being emitted into the air.
Cons of Riding Bangkok's Skytrain:
1. Insufficient Seating:
Unless one boards at one of the terminal stations, one probably will have to stand on the train, especially during rush hours. Each train has only 3-4 cars and the cars are built for standing and not sitting. There is only one row of seating for 20-25 across each side of the car, but there are numerous suspended straps for the majority of the passengers who will be standing. Although the cars are all air-conditioned, it can get uncomfortable when you are packed in like a sardine and often have to struggle to exit through the doors.
2. Unfriendly for the Aged and Handicapped:
Although many of the newer stations have elevators from the ground to the third level, I have seen very few old or physically handicapped riders on the BTS. The main reason is that many of the BTS stations have few escalators to carry passengers from the ground level to the ticket-selling windows on the second level, and then to the trains on the third level. Instead, there are steep flights of stairs to climb. If a person in a wheelchair does get on the sky train, there isn't a designated area for the wheelchair to be secured.
3. Doesn't Reach All Desired Locations:
Many people don't ride the BTS because it doesn't take them to their desired location, or if it does, it drops them off at a point too far to walk to their destination. For this reason, people will instead take a bus stopping at or close to their desired location.
4. More Expensive for Larger Groups of People:
In most cases, especially for shorter journeys, it is cheaper for a group of three or four people and more to take a taxi rather than going by the Skytrain.
5. Less Comfortable than a Taxi or Personal Vehicle:
If a person in Bangkok can afford to purchase and maintain a car, he or she is not worried about the price of gasoline. Furthermore, if this person doesn't have to be at a place at a certain time, sitting in an air-conditioned car, even while in a traffic jam, is much more comfortable than having to climb two levels to wait for, board, and then stand uncomfortably in a packed Skytrain car.
Bangkok's mass rapid transit is steadily being improved and developed with the construction now of more BTS and MRT extensions. New Skytrain and subway lines are also being planned so that people will be able to reach more areas of the city by train as well as by bus. Furthermore, the problems of making the Skytrain and its stations more accessible to the handicapped are now starting to be addressed. Hopefully, in the future, there will be more pros than cons in riding the Skytrain.
Riding the Skytrain From Saphan Kuai to Ari Stations
Riding the Skytrain From Siam to Asok Stations
Travelling Around Bangkok
Bangkok Mass Rapid Transit
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn