Bangkok is a huge, bustling city. As a fresh-off-the-plane tourist, it can easily seem like a daunting place to navigate. But if you can look past the chaotic roads and the constantly moving environment surrounding you, you’ll find a simple yet efficient transit system, alongside a handful of solid transportation alternatives to solve your Point A to Point B needs.
Arrival and Departure from Bangkok
There are two airports in Bangkok: Don Muang and Suvarnabhumi — the latter being the larger, more popular one.
Don Muang International (DMK)
While this airport is much smaller in comparison to it’s counterpart, it comes with a lot of history. As one of the oldest international airports in the world, and currently the world’s largest low-cost carrier airport, Don Muang has established itself as a more localized commuter airport, servicing most adjacent countries via smaller discount flight operators like Nok Air. Chances are, if you’re heading to the beaches of Thailand, you’ll be flying through this airport.
Located just north of the city, it will take anywhere between 30 minutes to an hour from downtown, depending on traffic, and will cost on average about 350 baht plus highway tolls (25b and 40b respectively) via taxi. There are unfortunately no trains that connect to the airport but you can catch a local bus from Mo Chit station on the BTS. But I would suggest taking the taxi.
TIP! Always make sure your taxi driver is using the meter to calculate the cost as some scammers have been known to offer fixed prices that end up costing you twice as much. Additionally, local advice is to produce the cash for the highway tolls up front so the driver knows you know what’s going on and they’ll be less likely to try to pull a fast one on you.
Once inside, this airport is very straight forward and not very large in size.
Suvarnabhumi International (BKK)
This airport, whose name derives from the Sanskrit term for "Land of Gold,” is the 20th busiest airport in the world and you definitely get a sense of this when you arrive. There are humans everywhere and the lines can be exhaustive but much like the city of Bangkok itself, the chaos is managed pretty well.
Perhaps credit goes to the beautiful Yaksha guardian statues, whose watchful eyes oversee the departures area to chase away any bad spirits. But I find this airport to be a breeze to navigate: directions are well-signed, staff are eager to help, and the layout is simple (and pretty).
The process gets even better when you consider how easy it is to get to and from the airport. Many people seem to suggest taking a taxi to/from the airport but you’d be crazy to use this option when the city has provided a train link that goes directly inside the airport for a tiny price.
Finding this train is easy. Once through customs, you’ll find yourself amongst a plethora of travellers trying to find a taxi, get SIM cards, or locate their friends and family. You can skip all of this madness and simply make your way to the lowest floor via the elevator. Here you’ll find the clean, quiet, and air conditioned Airport Rail Link.
For just 42 baht (just over $1.00 US) you can use this train line to get from the airport to Phaya Thai station. From here, you can connect to the BTS train line which will get you pretty much anywhere you need to go for a similar cost. If you’re aiming for downtown, you might also consider Makkasan station for a similar interchange, depending on where you’re headed.
Your total cost will be somewhere around 60-90 baht ($2-3 US). Compare this cost to the minimum 400 baht taxi ride (with a similar or longer commute time) and you’re starting your adventure off with 5x the savings!
My only other suggestion regarding both Don Muang and Suvarnabhumi would be to give yourself the buffer time to account for potential long lines at check in, security, and customs. I’ve had an equal number of experiences with both quick lines (whole process under an hour) and extremely backed up lines (over 1.5 hours). I’m not sure what factors contribute to it, but there doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason for it.
Important Note! When you arrive, you will be handed a tourist card. It's essentially the usual customs form that you fill out when you enter any country but once you get through customs, you'll be given back a portion of the form to keep. What they don't tell you is that you have to bring this portion back with you when you depart out of the country. Don't lose this piece of paper! Keep it tucked in your passport for safe keeping.
Speaking of passports, it's Thai law that all tourists keep their passports on their person at all times. We've been stopped by Thai police who checked for this so don't leave it in your hotel (I mean, you really shouldn't do that anyway but just throwing that out there).
Getting Around Bangkok
Like I said, Bangkok has no shortage of transportation options! Some, like motorcycle taxis, are not for the faint of heart while others are leisurely and safe. But it’s important to know what you’re getting in to with each one and how they can benefit you.
They’re no different than taxis anywhere else in the world except that, as I mentioned earlier, you need to watch out for scams. The more you look and act like a tourist, the more likely this will happen to you. But if you make it a habit to always request the meter be turned on before entering the vehicle, you will avoid most of the taxi scams here. Don’t try to negotiate fixed prices, etc. because you probably won’t win this game unless you’re a seasoned local.
Otherwise, this is a quick and effective way to get across town. The prices are still incredibly inexpensive, if you’re coming from a western culture, but remember to always consider value. Just because it’s cheaper than you’re used to, doesn’t mean it’s the best option.
If you’re feeling adventurous, you will find these guys hanging out on the side of the street. You will have to negotiate a price before hopping on but with the ability to maneuver in and out of traffic, they will get you where you need to go fast.
Much like a taxi, but without the meter and best for short trips. You’ll need to do some negotiating with price before getting on board. An average short trip is about 50 baht but they will start high in their initial offers. Prices will increase with more passengers.
These little things are a ton of fun though! Even if you end up paying a little bit more than you should, it's completely worth every baht. Just be careful and do your research on potential scams before you jump in — these rides and infamous for trying to give you more than you bargained for. They aren’t all scammers though and it’s well worth the effort for the joy of riding through town on a noisy, decorated go-kart tricycle.
If you’re travelling to places near the river, one of my favourite ways to get there is by riverboat. For as low as 8 baht, you can hop on these lovely old wooden boats and zoom down the canals, amongst local commuters. If you’re visiting the Khao San Road area from downtown, this is a great way to go.
Outside of walking, this is by far the best option. There are stations everywhere, it is SO inexpensive, it’s clean, AND it’s air-conditioned to give you a break from the heat. Just remember you can’t take any food or drinks through the gates so avoid picking up that tempting bubble tea until you’re on your way out.
BTS: Bangkok Transit System, typically runs through the heart of the city along major streets.
MRT: Mass Rapid Transit, services the middle of the city in mostly a north-south route.
ARL: Airport Rail Link, connects the main airport with the rest of the city, direct connections to the other two systems.
Skip the taxi! There are so many hidden gems and fun little alleyways in Bangkok that you will absolutely miss if you aren’t exploring on foot. Yes, it’s hot. Yes, it will take longer. Yes, you’ll need to eat and drink far more (this is not a concern, for the record). And YES, it is worth every step! I really encourage you to consider walking as much as you possibly can. And if you’re not convinced, keep reading here!
Get Out There and See Bangkok!
You’ll be fine. As you can see, Bangkok has been built into a user-friendly exploration environment and it’s ready for you! If you’re not the best with directions, Google Maps works well offline so you can always cross-reference with that.
Many of the locals either speak English, or have a friend nearby who can. If not, they’re well-versed in language-barrier charades so don’t be afraid to ask questions to find what you need. They don’t call Thailand the Land of Smiles for nothing — the people here are super friendly, accommodating, and respectful. Truly some of the most endearing I have ever encountered.