Visitors to Thailand arrive at Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok. They typically spend a few days in Bangkok seeing the sights and getting acclimatised, and then head out of the city to explore the Kingdom further. One of the main tourist destinations outside of Bangkok is Koh Tao.
Koh Tao doesn’t have an airport. Those in a hurry for whom cost is not an issue catch a Bangkok Airways flight to the neighbouring island of Koh Samui, and from there board a ferry to Koh Tao. Those not in similar circumstances have to make their way to the south of Thailand by either train or bus.
You can catch the 17.35 train from Hualamphong Train Station in Bangkok to Chumphon in the south. This train arrives early the following morning at 2.48. This allows plenty of time to catch a transfer mini bus to the Lomprayah Ferry Pier. From Chumphon it is about an hour on the Lomprayah high speed catamaran to Koh Tao island.
The only downside to this trip is the over night on the train. The alternative is to travel to Chumphon arriving on the day and then finding a hotel for the night and catching an early morning ferry to Koh Tao.
The cost of a second class sleeper on the train is 1,000 Thai Baht and the cost of the ferry from Chumphon to Koh Tao is 600 Thai Baht. This is a considerable saving on catching a plane. For many the train journey is a chance to see something of rural Thailand. If the Gulf is calm the ferry journey can also be most pleasant. It’s not exactly a boutique travel experience but it is normally stress free. Remember that there are often delays with train and boat travel but you invariably get there in the end.
Don Muang, I missed you old friend. I remember the tears of joy I shed when you greeted my return to Thailand from cold climes. I remember the golfers whose games in the airport grounds where rarely interruprted by the arrival of my plane. I remember the quiet arrival halls and smiling faces of the immigration staff as you passed into the Land of Smiles with scant regard for technicalities like visas, or calculations of how many times you had already visited. They were pleased you were visiting and for the money you would give to their Thai brothers and sisters. I remember the short walk to pick up my bags and then on to the steamy forecourt of the airport and then quickly into a waiting taxi. Sometimes I would linger and fill up on a tasty 20 baht meal and a cheap beer. Don Muang, you were a pleasure to know and I felt no need to rush away from you.
I went back in November 2012 (flights to Chiang Mai/Suratthani) for the first time since international flights moved to Suvarnabhumi. I wasn’t pleased with what I found. Things have changed. My love affair with Don Muang has now ended. It is now just a inconvenience, and all of a sudden I now like Suvarnabhumi. Sorry Andrew Biggs, you are wrong on this one. ‘Swampy’ isn’t perfect, but it’s head and shoulders above the ‘new and improved’ Don Muang airport. The conspiracy theorist in me thinks that the re-opening of Don Muang is a fantastically clever PR stunt to promote Suvarnabhumi airport. If so it worked.
The Airport Authority of Thailand has spent millions, and years, renovating Don Muang airport and they have managed to make it worse it every respect. This must have been deliberate. Adding fuel to a conspiracy theory.
Here is the abridged list of my complaints:
Don Muang has no convenient airport rail link. It does have a railway station which is not an easy walk with suitcases, kids etc. The train fares to central Bangkok are cheap, but the trains are not that frequent and take between 45 minutes (if you are really lucky) and 90 minutes or over on a normal day. If you want to connect with public transport you need to go all the way to Hualamphong station, which is good if you want to stay in Chinatown, but still a 30 to 40 minute journey to the areas where most of the popular tourist hotels are located. If you know Bangkok well, and you speak Thai, you can get off at one of the stations before Hualamphong Station and cut down your journey time. The consequence of this is that everybody wants to get a taxi, and this means long queues at the taxi kiosks. The photos above only partially illustrate it. Imagine several hundred mildly agitated people and then multiply that by 10 (both in terms of levels of frustration and numbers of people) In the future these queues may become a tourist attraction in their own right, if you can get there to see them that is.
Upstairs in the airport, before you go through passport control, there is a large food court. Its fearsomely expensive. A bowl of noodles is 185 baht plus VAT and service charge. Just outside the airport grounds you can get a tastier version of the same thing for 35 Baht. This is a rip-off and even more expensive than the food options at Suvarnabhumi airport, such as the excellent S&P restaurant chain. Don’t eat at Don Muang airport, especially if you have to foot the bill for the girlfriend and in-laws like me. 4 bowls of noodle soup, 1 beer, 2 bottles of water, and 1 fruit juice cost me 1,200 baht. Same sort of price range as Heathrow airport in a country where the national average wage is approximately a fifth of that in the UK.
It’s chaos. I arrived in good time for a 6am flight and the queues where frighteningly long. If it weren’t for Tony Fernandes’s excellent Air Asia staff I would have never got on my plane. Air Asia staff were having to walk around asking people which flights they were getting on and then rearranging the queues on the basis of urgency. It was really stressful for everyone concerned.
Shiny new tiling, and a lick of paint isn’t what makes a good airport. The AOT needs to wake up and consider things like service and value for money (ironically something achieved very well by airlines who operate out of the airport) if they want to make a success of Don Muang airport.
As anyone who has been to Bangkok will tell you, the roads are chaotic. There are taxis, cars, trucks, tuk tuks and motorbikes to contend with. If that is not enough, street vendors have a habit of moving off the sidewalk onto the road. The rules of the road in Thailand are similar to elsewhere in the world, but the rules and the enforcement of these rules seem inadequate to deal with the traffic in the capital. Here are some tips for driving and parking in Bangkok.
The Rules of the Road
1) Drive on the left.
2) The legal age for driving is 18.
3) 15 year olds can drive motorbikes under 110cc.
4) Always carry your driving license and copy of the vehicle registration document.
5) Either a Thai driving license or an International driving license is valid.
6) It is compulsory to wear a seat belt in the front seats.
7) Motorbike riders must wear a helmet.
8) It is not compulsory for children to be in a child seat.
9) All driving fines should be paid at the local police station.
Tips for Driving in Bangkok
The one thing that everyone will tell you about driving in Bangkok is to avoid the rush hours, especially in busy areas such as Sukhumvit and near Hualamphong train station in China town. In the morning the busy time is between 6.30am and 9.30am and in the afternoon between 5pm and 7.30pm.
The other vital tip for driving in Bangkok is to watch both sides. Motorbikes zip between cars. Pulling out and opening a car door can be fraught with hazard if you are not alert.
Another good piece of advice is to know your route. If you miss your turning it can be very hard to turn around (legally), and you can lose lots of time.
As you get to know the city you will realize that some traffic lights take several minutes to change from red to green. If you are planning a car journey you should try and avoid these lights or factor in extra time.
Thai people are famous for being polite and gentle. This is not quite the case on the road. The high stress of the roads means that often the only way to get onto a busy road is to throw caution and manners to the wind and nudge your nose out. If an oncoming driver slows slightly take this as an invitation to join the traffic, if not then don’t push your luck.
Police in Bangkok have to buy their fuel, gun, their bullets and even their motorbike. They have a very small salary. Despite this, they do a decent job of keeping peace and order in the Big Mango. Everyone knows that if you get pulled for a driving offense, the fine down the police station would be 500 Thai Baht, whereas an ‘on the spot fine’ might be 400 Thai Baht or less. If you get pulled the best advice is to ‘play it by ear’. Don’t be cocky.
If you get in an accident then you should swap details. It is the law that every driver should have at least third person insurance. Don’t get angry – it is very rude in Thailand to lose your cool and can lead to an unfortunate escalation in violence.
Tips for Parking
It is obvious where you can and can’t park in Bangkok. Along side streets it is fine to park on the road. The fear is more to do with having your car stolen or broken into.
Most of the big hotels have parking for residents. The big shopping centers like MBK also have car parks. It is worth using car parks where possible as they are cheap and offer protection for a vehicle.
There isn’t a parking compare site for Thailand. Information for prices, number of available places and locations is patchy and inconsistent. It is best to ask Bangkokers for advice and to check forums.
Parking in Suvarnabhumi Airport is divided into short stay and long stay. The short stay is connected to the airport terminal and costs 25 Thai Baht an hour or 250 Thai Baht a day. The longer stay car park is far from the terminal and costs 200 Thai Baht a day. Your car is in the sun all day and less secure. Most foreigners pay the extra 50 Baht a day and use the closer car park.
It is easy to hire a car at the airport. A car can be very convenient in Thailand and gives you access to some great destinations that are otherwise hard to get to. However, if you are a tourist on a short visit, save yourself the heart ache and take taxis and public transport – it is cheap and far less stressful.
Not for the faint-hearted, or anyone with mobility difficulties, however if you are up for a bit of fun and adventure this is a speedy and cheap way to get around Bangkok.
Bangkok Canal Taxi Boats, or Khlong Saen Saep as it is known in Thai, run a distance of 18km from Bankapi to the North of Sukhumvit,then parallel to the Sukhumvit Road, through to Pratunam, past Siam Square and onto Wat Sa Ket (the Golden Mount). Tickets cost 10 to 20 baht depending on the distance and boats run from 5.30am to 8.30pm.
The reason I say this is not for the faint-hearted or people with mobility difficulties is the taxi boats can be an uncomfortable and smelly wet experience. It is a bit difficult getting on and off. There is a step up from the boats and they bob around in the water. Once you are in you shelter behind plastic sheeting occasionally getting damp with less than wholesome canal water when other boats pass.
However, this said there are upsides to using these boats, as 40,000 to 60,000 of the the locals do every day. They go where other transport systems, except buses which move at snail’s pace, don’t go. One failing of the sky train and the metro system is that it doesn’t go toward the Khao San area. The Khlong Saen Saep will take you to Wat Sa Ket,which is a hop skip and jump from the Khao San area. Also it’s fun and you get to see things you won’t see any other way. There are communities, historic bridges and wooden houses not visible from the road side. Like all the best travelling experiences, you have to put with the bad to get the good. Rewarding.
The Khlong Saen Saep has two lines, converging on the Pratunam Pier. The NIDA line has 24 stops and runs east from Pratunam. This is the line to take from Pratunam to get to Sukhumvit and onto Ramkhamkeng University to the north of Sukhumvit. The other line, the Golden Mount Line line, runs from Pratunam Pier through to the Golden Mount to the west, with 6 stops.
Here are some piers you might want to stop off at:
Phan Fa Pier: for the Golden Mount
Ban Krua Nua Pier: for the Jim Thompson House
Nan Nua Pier: for Sukhumvit soi 3
Thong Lo Pier: for Sukhumvit soi 38 and the RCA entertainment zone
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The Bangkok Mass Transit System (BTS) was officially opened on the 5th December 1999. It had been under construction, in one for form or another, for a decade before finally being completed. The name by which it is commonly known, ‘Skytrain’, was coined by the local press.
The Skytrain has been extended twice since 1999, once in 2009 and again in 2011 and now extends 30.95 km across the City. The system has two lines: the Sukhumvit Line and the Silom Line. The Sukhumvit Line currently has 21 stations going from the North of the City (Mo Chit) to the South East of the City (Bearing) stretching almost to the metroplitan limits of the Sukhumvit Road. The other line, the Silom Line, has 8 stations and runs from the National Stadium in the centre of the City to the West of the City over to the other side of the river (Wongwai Yai).
As the digram above shows, the term Skytrain refers to the elevation of the track above ground level at an average of 12 metres. The Stytrain largely follows existing roads in Bangkok. As well as being a great way to beat the traffic on the congested Bangkok roads, for tourists this elevated position provides excellent views of the City. Even if you have the money to pay for taxis, it is well worth using the Skytrain as you will see so much more than you would at road level – as well as travelling much more quickly on long journeys.
Navigation on the Skytrain
Navigating the Skytrain is very simple. Select the correct line and then select the correct direction of travel by referring to the end station on the line. For the Sukhumvit Line you head towards Mo Chit if you are going North (ie from Sukhumvit to Siam Square) or Bearing if you are going South. For the Silom Line you head towards Wongwian Yai if you are heading West (ie from the city centre to the Silom area) and towards National Stadium if you are heading East.
The Skytrain has its limits in terms of coverage of the City. It won’t take you to the Grand Palace or Khao San and it won’t take you to the airport.
To get to the international airport take the Sukhumvit Line to Phaya Thai BTS station and change to the Airport Link. You will need to buy a new ticket.
To get to the Grand Palace or Khao San take the Silom Line to Saphan Taksin BTS station and exit the station to Sathorn Pier. From there you can take the Chao Phraya Express Boat onwards to destinations on the river. You can buy the ticket on the boat.
Fares for the BTS
From the perspective of tourists the BTS system is incredibly good value for money. Although, from the perspective of Thai’s who are on an average income the fares are expensive and many people are forced to struggle to and from work on the buses which are a fraction of the cost.
To purchase single journey tickets you must use the coin operated machines before the barrier gates. They are simple to use with a useful explanatory map beside each machine. The way you buy a tickets is to select the number of zones you wish to travel and insert coins. They don’t take notes. If you need change every station has a kiosk where you can get change.
There are six zones. As of June 2012 a journey in 1 zones costs 15 THB ($0.5), 2 zones 20 THB ($0.67), 3 zones ($0.83), 4 zones ($1), 5 zones ($1.17) and 5 zones ($1.67). For the journey from Siam Square BTS station to Nana BTS station (near Soi 7 on the Sukhumvit Road) you travel 2 zones and therefore pay 20 THB.
You can also buy a Day Pass from the kiosk for unlimited travel in any 24 hour period, these cost 150 THB ($5). For longer stays, purchase a 30 Day Smart Pass for 30THB. Once you have the Smart Pass you can buy a block of single journey tickets which you must use within 30 days of purchase. For travel over a period of a week or more this is by far the cheapest way to buy tickets. Thai Commuters all use a Smart Card. There are different packages: 15 trips for 375 THB ($12.50), 25 trips for 575 THB ($19.16), 40 trips for 840 THB ($28), or 50 trips for 1,000 THB ($33.33).
There are lots of forms of transport in Bangkok: boats, taxis, trains, metro, even motorbike taxis; but this article will focus on the fast, efficient, and modern public transport system which is fully accessible to the first time visitor.
Opened in 2010, this service shuttles visitors between the main Bangkok airport (Suvarnabhumi) and the centre of modern Bangkok in under 30 minutes. Unless you are travelling to stay near the river in old Bangkok, this is the fastest and cheapest way to get from the airport into town.
The first train leaves at 06.00 and the last train leaves at midnight. The station is really easy to get to as it is located in the basement of the main airport building. Take the lift or the escalator.
Bangkok Airport Link Train
Fares are 15 to 45 THB depending upon which station you travel to in Bangkok. For travel to Central Bangkok we recommend two stations on the Airport Link:
Makkasan: From here you can connect to the MRT (metr0) which will take you to Bangkok Train Station, Sukhumvit Road and the Silom Road.
Phaya Thai: From here you can connect to the BTS (sky train) and this is the best station for onward travel to riverside locations and the main shopping area of Siam Square as well as the Northern Bus Terminal.
The sky train (BTS) is a great way to travel around the City. Not only is it quick, cheap (20 to 40 baht a trip) you also get a fantastic view of the view. The only disadvantage is that it doesn’t run to the Khao San area or to where the Grand Palace and other historic monuments are located.
The BTS system has two lines. The Silom Line runs from the National Stadium station in the centre of town to Wongwian Yai station in the east of the city. This line is useful for going to Silom (Patpong night market), Siam Square (shopping area) and Saphan Thaksin (where you can connect with the boat service). The other line is the Sukhumvit Line which runs from On Nut at the top end of the Sukhumvit Road to Mo Chit in the north of the city. This line is good for getting from Sukhumvit to the shopping centre of Siam Square.
BTS Skytrain in Bangkok
Tickets are available for purchase via coin operated vending machines in every station. If you haven’t got the change every station has a kiosk by the entrance gates where they can give change and sell three day tourist passes.
Check out the maps, fares and timetables on the website www.bts.co.th.
The metro system, known locally as the MRT, has a single line running from Bang Sue train station in the north of the city to the main train station Hua Lamphong in the south. Hua Lamphong is the train station for trips north to Chiang Mai and trips south to Hua Hin and onto Surat Thani, for connections to Koh Samui and Koh Phangan.
The metro system is very useful for going to Chatuchak weekend market (Chatuchak Park is the stop) and to the main Train Station (Hua Lamphong stop). You can also connect to the Airport link at Petchaburi stop if you don’t mind a 10 minute walk. Petchaburi is one stop from the only MRT station on the Sukhumvit Road (Asoke station).
Chao Phraya Express Boat
This is our favourite part of the mass transit system. It is cheap and reliable, and takes you up and down the main river in Bangkok connecting the BTS system with major tourist attractions like the Grand Palace (Tha Tien Pier) and the Khao San Road (Phra Ahtit Pier).
This is a commercial commuter service rather than a tourist service and the system can be a bit bewildering. There are four different services, which you can identify by the flag on the roof of the boat. Our advice is to take only the Orange Line (orange flag) or the boats with no flag. These services stop at every pier and cost 10 to 20 baht depending on which services you take and how far you go. You can buy tickets on the boat. Another option is to buy a 150 baht one day tourist passes from the kiosk before you board. They have special tourist boats with guides giving a commentary as you travel, the staff in the kiosk will alert you when the right boat comes.
A good way to use the service is to travel by the BTS to Saphan Thaksin station. You can follow the signs to the pier from the BTS station. From there ask the helpful girls in the kiosk to let you know which boat goes to the Grand Palace. You might have a wait for up to 20 minutes. You pay 18 baht on the boat and get off at Tha Tien pier. From there it is an easy 5 minute walk to either the Grand Palace or Wat Po for the reclining Buddha. Please give it a go. It is both fun and cheap.