All Aboard! – Bangkok’s newly built skytrains offer relief from notorious traffice congestion below

Jay Brunhouse

Bangkok’s Skytrain

Concerning speed, Bangkok’s new Siemens-built Skytrains never move very fast, but at least they move, which is more than you can say for the traffic below, which is bumper to bumper, and the bumpers are standing still, and the passengers, too.

The knock on Bangkok has always been impossible traffic gridlock and air pollution so thick that wearing face masks is commonplace.

When the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s public relations team coined the phrase “Amazing Thailand,” local Thais sneered and said, “Traffic-jam Thailand.”

Vehicles edge through Bangkok at less than two-thirds the speed of most other big Asian cities and less than a third the speed in the U.S.

Birthday inauguration

Traffic improved 4%-5% after Bangkok’s new electric Skytrain, or elevated metro system, began service on King Bhumibol Adulyadej’s 72nd birthday on Dec. 5, 1999. After a running-in period,, the beloved king of Thailand boarded the first Skytrain and became its first passenger, although he was nonrevenue.

Subsequently, 40,900 automobiles have disappeared from Bangkok’s streets. Skytrain draws about 150,000 passengers a day from private cars and 30,000 away from buses.

Skytrain’s 14.6-mile network is useful for visitors because it takes you through Bangkok’s central business and shopping district. It is the most dramatic change in Bangkok transportation since the “Venice of the East” paved over most of its canals to accommodate automobiles.

The new Porsche-designed Skytrain is sleek, clean and sparkling. Each carriage of the air-conditioned, 3-carriage train features 126 lemonyellow Formica seats aligned along both sides. Red straps accommodate strap hangers during commute hours. Flooring consists of fields of gray and blue linoleum.

For now, the Skytrain network is limited to two lines and 25 stations, with an interchange at Central Station. These two lines are just the first increment of an elaborate 161-mile network of trains and subways. The next segment, a subway, is due to open in 2002. Its 12-mile tunnel is now nearly half complete.

Nevertheless, the Skytrain has already changed Bangkok. You hear of professionals having their chauffeurs drive their Mercedes-Benz or BMW to a Skytrain station and then riding Skytrain to work in order to save themselves the aggravation of long waits in gridlock commute traffic. When asked about Skytrain, one professional said, “Fast.”

Skytrain stations are within short walking distance of many good hotels and most tourist attractions. For tourists, Skytrains are a cut-rate way to get around Bangkok, and they are safe, given a normal degree of caution. Seeing Bangkok from the rooftops gives you a new understanding of the city. You see things you never notice from ground level, such as surviving klongs, or canals.

Skytrain stations’ “Ticket Offices” do not actually sell tickets, but the agents will direct you to the easily understood coin-drop ticketing machines that dispense plastic “tickets” for you to insert into the turnstiles. There is only one class of ticket, and you determine your fare according to distance. Schematic diagrams on the machines make this easy. The watchful guards standing nearby are honestly eager to help puzzled visitors.

Fares start at 10 baht (about 26[cent]) and rise in 5-baht increments to a maximum of 40 baht (91[cent]). Stored-value cards are also available for regular commuters.

Taxis and tuk-tuks

Because of competition from Sky-train, the Bangkok Taxi Operators’ Association is asking for a reduction from 35 baht (90[cent]) to 25 baht (66[cent]) for the flag drop, which takes you two kilometers (1.2 miles), given decent traffic conditions. Except that during commute hours you are never given decent traffic conditions.

The taxi fare from the Patpong market to the Shangri-La Hotel normally runs 35-40 baht, but on one occasion the traffic was so awful that it took me an hour, cost 140 baht ($5.60 at the time) and I nearly missed an appointment.

In March 2000, when I took Sky-train from Patpong to the Shangri-La I arrived for my appointment 45 minutes early because my 20-baht (now 53[cent]) trip took only 15 minutes, including stopping off for photographs.

Some tourists like to try riding a tuk-tuk, which is a 3-wheeled, open-air vehicle seating two full-sized persons. Its name comes from the sound its tiny motor makes.

Although tuk-tuks seem quite exotic and appear to be cheap, only residents will save money because you negotiate the fares, and tuk-tuk drivers are harder negotiators than visitors. A wide-eyed tourist may pay more for a bumpy tuk-tuk ride, breathing auto exhaust fumes, than a metered air-conditioned taxi trip over the same distance, but always check to see that you take a “Taxi Meter” and not just a “Taxi.”

Motorcycle taxis have the advantage of being able to dodge in and out of standstill and heavy traffic, but of course a cycle carries only one passenger. Moreover, motorcycle taxis are extremely dangerous and many ex-pats refuse to ride them for fear of disaster.

Finally, both non-air-conditioned and air-con buses ply the streets, but they are liable to the same traffic standstills as all other traffic and their routes seem to be known only to local residents.

The Skytrain network is one of the easiest transit systems to understand. The only confusion is the station names, which are in Thai. The station announcements in Thai don’t help one bit, but diagrams inside the carriages are a great help. As you exit the train, look for diagrams of the locality indicating which exit you should use.

The disadvantage of Skytrain is the stairs to the station. Most stations have three levels: street level, ticketing level and the train level high above.

Riders must climb a flight of steep stairs from ground level to the ticketing level. From, the ticketing. level to train level, riders need to climb a second flight of stairs, though they may use an up-only escalator in some stations. Elevators promised for the disabled are yet to appear.

Down by the riverside

Saphan Taksin station (saphan meaning “bridge”; Taksin was the first king of Thailand) is your stop for the Chao Phraya River and the deluxe riverside hotels. The Krungthep wing of the Shangri-La Hotel is directly opposite Exit One, and a direct entrance to the hotel from Skytrain is under construction. The best way to reach the Royal Palace, Bangkok’s most famous attraction, is to take a river taxi from Saphan Taksin Skytrain Station. Look for the sign to the pier.

Similarly, you can use Mo Chit Skytrain Station for the Chatuchak Weekend Market with acres of stalls selling everything from antiques to pets. The Jim Thomson Museum is convenient to the National Stadium Skytrain Station.

The Patpong night market near Sala Daeng Skytrain Station is a must for bargain seekers and gaudy entertainment. The Erawan Four-Headed Brahma Shrine, the World Trade Center and major department stores are at Chit Lom Skytrain Station.

For information, pick up one of the free brochures in the station or consuit www.bts.co.th.

I thank Rashana for my buffet lunch in the Shangri-La hotel’s Coffee Garden restaurant. The hotel consistently places high in readers’ polls for best hotel in Asia.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Martin Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group