When exploring the frenetic streets of Thailand’s capital, forego the elevated transit system or even the MRT, and get a taste of the real Bangkok by braving a public bus.  (JG Photo/ Antony Sutton)

Savor Bangkok's Sights and Sounds at Street Level


MARCH 05, 2015

For so many years the idea that Bangkok would have a mass transit system was pie in the sky. Grandiose plans were drawn up amid great hoopla before being quietly shelved, so most Bangkokians were resigned to spending much of their day in gridlock as the notorious traffic ground to a halt one more time.

Today residents and visitors alike can speed around the center of the city in mere minutes, courtesy of the elevated Bangkok Transit System (BTS) and the underground MRT. They're great for whizzing round town in air-conditioned comfort, making appointments easier to schedule and generally removing bodies from the sweltering morass at ground level.

All sounds wonderful on paper. But Bangkok isn't lived on paper. Bangkok is lived at ground level where the smell of street stalls tempt passersby, where monks go on their early morning wanders collecting alms and where the pace of life is as unhurried as it has been for decades.

Mass transit systems work well in places like Singapore. A never-ending landscape of high-rise apartments and shopping malls, it pays visitors to escape the dullness of ground level, to be a spectator. But not Bangkok. With its street life, temples and canals, Bangkok is best enjoyed up close and personal as an active participant. And hopping on and off buses lets you do that to the max.

For the first-time visitor standing at a bus stop in downtown Bangkok seeing all the different types of buses come and go can seem more than a little confusing. But there is method in the madness and the savvy visitor armed with a bus map, a bag full of patience and a Plan B (the name and address of your hotel written in Thai for a taxi) has all the tools for a great day's exploring the old-fashioned way.

Depending on the weather, the cream-and-red non-air-conditioned buses are the best to use. There is a single fare no matter how far you may travel and they are comfortable enough -- if you can get a seat! The air-conditioned monsters may be cooler but too often the passengers close the curtains, which rather defeats the object of the exercise.

And away you go. At the front, the smartly dressed driver shifts the impossibly large gear stick, pushes the accelerator pedal to the metal and the bus heads out into the traffic. As the bus gathers speed, the conductors will squeeze their way along the length, collecting fares from the new passengers. Given the large numbers of passengers and the length of some bus trips, it has always amazed me how they can remember who has bought tickets and who hasn't. Again it may look chaotic but it works and every once in a while you may come across an inspector who will check the passengers' tickets.

Getting a window seat is the way to go. Yes, it gives you maximum exposure to Bangkok's noxious fumes, a simple face mask can help there, but you also get the benefit of any breeze there might be.

Your fellow passengers will be an interesting, eclectic bunch. Saffron-clad monks get seats by the door and don't have to pay. If someone is sat there already they will politely make way even if the bus is crowded. Chattering school and university students will giggle and jabber their way through their journey, while office and factory workers will catch some precious Zs.

There's a pleasant unhurriedness to traveling on the bus, a feeling perhaps that the destination can wait; for passengers these precious moments allow them to escape the daily grind. And that is something you don't find above you on the BTS or below you on the MRT, where everything is geared towards getting you from point A to B as quickly as possible.

Bangkok's grids are great levelers. Whether you're in a chauffeur-driven Mercedes Benz or shoehorned on the 115, the traffic lights have no favorites. Rich or poor, everyone has to wait at the level crossing on Rama 4 Road for the great lumbering freight trains going to and fro the port in Kong Toei. The beauty of these interminable waits is that you can get to see what is going on around you. You can peer inside dimly lit shophouses piled high with building materials, wood or automotive parts and idly wonder how they do a stock check.

And as you inch your way to the next traffic light, you realize the next shop is the same. And the next. And the next. With so much similarity on display, with no attempt at branding, with nothing, apparently, to mark one outlet out from another, how can a customer decide which business to patronize? A fascinating intellectual exercise as you try to grapple with a business model that would get short shrift from the talking heads on TV "back home."

Before you have finished mulling on Thai retail practices along main roads, you have moved on and now you are staring down the jaws of a soi (side street). A row of motorcyclists line up patiently, blue jacketed, helmeted. Once in a while someone hops on the back and off they head down the narrow lane to who knows where. The riders weave between the food carts and dogs that line the soi while back at the queue the next rider gets ready.

How come all the riders are wearing blue? Why aren't people walking? Questions tumble through your mind as your thought process goes off at tangents. Like a Babushka doll, each answer only reveals more questions.

Diving down these sois is part of the fun of pottering around Bangkok, especially the old area down by the river where old wooden houses stand cheek by jowl alongside more modern, uglier shophouses. A Buddhist temple, shimmering gold, hemmed in by mechanics and mini marts, offers some solace.

And then there is the food. Tempting snacks and rice dishes at a fraction of the cost in your hotel, but no less delicious.

One soi leads to another and soon you are lost in a maze behind the main road. With lanes too narrow to allow cars to pass you are at the mercy of motorcycles and tuk-tuks that dominate the limited road space, reluctant to concede speed to a mere pedestrian.

Just keep walking; soon you will find yourself back in the familiar. A main road absolutely jammed with cars, buses and hand-pulled carts. After the relative serenity in the back streets you will almost breathe a sigh of relief.

Time to board another bus!