Keeping a city of 8.5 million people moving day to day is no small feat but Bangkok’s mass transit system is robust and efficient, and gets the job done well. Once you get the hang of it, you’ll wonder why you ever considered taking a taxi but as a first-time user, understanding Bangkok’s train system can be a little daunting.
Here’s what you need to know to connect your A to B’s like a local!
There are three main commuter train systems, each beneficial in their own way.
BTS: Bangkok Transit System
The BTS, also known as the Skytrain, is just as it sounds: above your head. Built in 1999, it consists of two lines. One follows along the sprawling Sukhumvit Road, creating a chunky concrete ceiling over much of the road, eventually making a turn north towards Chatuchak Market; while the other turns south towards Si Lom.
You can access the BTS at many major intersections (35 stops in total) between the hours of 6:00am and midnight. The trains are air-conditioned and offer an inexpensive break from the Thailand heat.
Train intervals range between 3-7 minutes.
MRT: Mass Rapid Transit
The MRT differs from the BTS in that it runs primarily underground. This line services different areas of Bangkok and caters to a commuter crowd. For this reason, as a tourist you’ll likely use this transit system less frequently than the BTS.
This one opened in 2004, currently offering 35 stops along 43 kilometres of track. And while it is run by a different operator, you can still transfer to certain BTS stations wherever there is a crossover in their respective transit lines (although you will have to pay a separate fare). The hours of operation for this line are 5:30am until midnight.
Train intervals range between 3-7 minutes.
Airport Rail Link
This marvellous system was opened in 2010 to get commuters from the inner city out to the Suvarnabhumi Airport in under an hour. There are just eight stops along the route which help speed up the transit time and makes it hands down the most efficient way to get to and from the airport.
The trains are accessible from the lowest floor of the airport so theres honestly no reason to put yourself through the troubles of locating and paying so much more for a taxi.
Train intervals range between 10-15 minutes and it can get pretty packed during peak periods.
How to Access the Trains
Each of these trains run on a similar concept: pay for a token/ticket that will grant you access through the turnstiles. Here’s the step by step.
First of all, watch for the logos pictured above. They'll direct you very clearly as to which direction you need to go and how to get to the station.
For the BTS and ARL, you can't miss it -- giant concrete structures overhead with escalators or stairs leading up.
For the MRT, you'll need to locate the above-ground entrances leading underground. They're easily distinguishable with their blue accented entrances and gold/white writing.
Once inside, they operate almost identically. For simplicity sake, most of the examples below are for the BTS but the concept can be interchangeable with the other two.
You can either purchase your entry directly from the vending machines if you have change or you can do so from the agents behind the desk.
For the vending machine, you must identify your desired stop on the map. Each stop will have a corresponding number (which is conveniently also the cost of the trip). Press the button for that number into the vending machine and it will light up and request the fare. Simply insert your coins and take your card or token and be on your way. These machines will only take coins, unless you're using the ARL, which accepts bills.
Alternatively, if you aren't confident in using the machines, you can speak to a real human at the desk. They speak English well. All you need to do is tell them which stop you'd like to go to and they'll exchange your money for a token or card.
Just note that sometimes they'll run out of tokens/cards at the desk and will just give you change to use in the vending machines.
Once you have your token/card, head over to the turnstiles. On the right hand side you'll use your token/card.
For the BTS, insert your card as pictured below. Upon entry, your card will pop back up at the top of the turnstile for you to remove and keep with you. When you exit at your destination, you'll insert the card once again but this time you won't get it back. This completes the trip.
For the MRT and ARL, you will just tap your token when you enter, as pictured below. When you've reached your destination and exit the system, you will insert your token into a coin slot to complete the trip.
Unfortunately for the scrapbookers out there, you cannot keep any of these tokens or cards for memories sake. But it does keep the system fair and avoids any opportunities for dishonesty.
1. At every transit stop, you’ll have to pass through a security checkpoint. In most cases, you just walk through a metal detector that will make a noise and the security officer will just wave you through regardless. Other times, they may request to see inside your bags. It’s all completely normal and I find it just depends on how seriously the individual guard takes their job.
The BTS security guards are a little more diligent with bag checks than the MRT ones and more likely to request bag checks. Before you enter, there is a clear list of items you can’t bring on the trains if you’re concerned. This also includes wearing sunglasses or hats, but again, it's loosely governed.
2. Another one of those things being food and drink. After some trial and error, we’ve determined that they don’t mind if you bring sealed drinks or takeout in a bag onto the train but if it’s open they will make you turn around or toss it.
And they really test you on this, too. Every stop seems to be offering bubble tea or some kind of delicious snack but you must refrain! Wait until you exit the train on the other end to indulge in these glorious Thai snacks.
While this may seem silly, it is part of what makes the Bangkok trains so enjoyable. They’re so clean! Please do your part to keep it that way.
3. At the end of each line, you might notice that the train crew will yell something in Thai as the passenger exit. They're simply asking that you don’t enter the train until they’ve cleared the train of any garbage or sleepy passengers in preparation for the next commute.
4. Offer your seat to anyone elderly, pregnant, or with children. Additionally, as a respectful gesture, any monks. There are signs on the trains that will remind you but it’s a good practice no matter where you go.
5. Unlike many of the transit system passengers in North America that I’ve come in contact with, the Thais practice respect when they commute. Everyone waits for passengers to exit the trains, everyone lines up single-file in order of when they arrived, and most importantly, no one rushes the doors from the back of the line.
When I think of Thailand, one of the first words that come to mind is respect. Thailand seems to built around a culture of respect and it’s important that you do your part to reciprocate it. Not only by being a respectful commuter but in everything you do and everywhere you visit while you’re there.
6. If you plan on spending a lot of time on these trains, you can opt for the Rabbit Card that you can preload for quicker access to the trains.
7. The MRT offers an app to help you in your travels.
So why use the trains in Bangkok?
Truly, there is no better way to get across town, in our opinion.
Are there cheaper options? Sure. But it comes at the cost of hot exhaust in your face.
Are there quicker options? Sometimes. But it depends on the time of day and how good your driver is.
But what you get with these trains is traffic-free reliability, air-conditioning, and a clean environment for both you and the Earth -- at a very reasonable price (starting as low as 16 baht). Maybe on a rare occasion during rush hour, you'll need to squish in with other commuters, but it's a small price to pay for such convenience.