Friday, August 13, 2010

Commuting Like a Local

Since we got here a year ago I've wanted to get on one of these Bangkok Metropolitan Transportation Authority (BMTA) commuter vans to come home at least once.  I figured it would be fairly entertaining to squeeze myself into one of these with many Thais who use them every day as their principle form of transport to and from work.  You see them all over the expressway, so I figured that one day I would take advantage of their availability and ride one home.  A couple of weeks ago that day finally came.  Allow me to set the stage.

I worked late and I had missed the last shuttle van back home, so I walked down to the Skytrain station at Chit Lom.  I have learned that it is difficult, if not almost impossible, to get a taxi near the Embassy that is willing to take me all the way to where we live, so I usually hoof it to the train and get off further up the line.  Anyway, as I got close to the BTS station it started to rain.  My previous post described what it can be like in Bangkok during the monsoon season, so it was no surprise that the trains were very quickly full.  I couldn't get on a train at Chit Lom, so I waddled down the Skywalk to the Siam station--it's a transfer point between the two BTS lines, so a lot of people get off each train and a whole bunch get on.  I got into the scrum of humanity and still had to wait for FOUR trains before I got on board, and that was packed like sardines.

Per my usual practice I got off the Skytrain at Victory Monument and descended to the street level to catch a taxi.  Normally I can get a taxi in two minutes or less, but even though the rain wasn't coming down in buckets there were quite simply no taxis available.  I knew that my chance to ride the BMTA van had finally arrived!

Those of you who have seen Victory Monument, you know that it is a giant traffic circle, and all around are pick-up/drop-off spots for shuttle vans and buses that run all over the greater Bangkok metropolitan area.  It's simply a matter of finding the place for the line you want to catch.  So I started walking around the traffic circle, looking for the vans that said ปากเกร็ด (Pakkret, the district in which we live).

Did I mention that the vans do NOT have their destinations written in English?  Oh, wait a second--I can read Thai.  Problem.  Solved.

I only had to walk about halfway around the traffic circle to find the pick-up spot for our area.  I spotted a guy there who looked like he knew what was going on, and asked him first if the van was going where I wanted.  He said it was, so I asked how to get a ticket for this particular van.  He told me to pay after I got on.  Sweet.  Of the 17 people on the van, I was the only non-Thai.  That's right SEVENTEEN people (including the driver).  The shuttle vans that I normally ride are exactly the same on the outside, but our vans only seat 10 passengers, 11 in a pinch. Where our vans have three rows and seat three people in each row, the Thai commuter vans have four rows and two of them seat four people.  It helps that the average Thai is much narrower in body than the typical American embassy employee.  Now I'm no economist, but I believe that is maximizing profits and efficient use of resources.

Here's the best part.  After I sat down they passed a basket around for the fare, a paltry 25 baht.  TWENTY-FIVE BAHT.  Do you know how much it costs to get a taxi from Victory Monument to our place?  Including the expressway tolls it's about 250 baht.  Again, I'm no economist, but that's a difference of 10 times (right?).  So, tell me, why on earth would I ever pay 10 times as much for my commute?  I mean besides the fact that the van drops me off at Central Chaengwattana and I have to call Mali to come pick me up there (especially when it's raining), or the fact that the BMTA vans stop running sometime around 9 p.m.?  And that's only a problem if I work really, really late, at which point it's worth it for the taxi because they get me home so quickly.  Anyway, I only had 100 baht bills, so I had to take my change from the basket, and it honestly felt a little weird, but I forgot my guilt as soon as we got out of the traffic circle and on our way. 

Oh, and just like the shuttle vans I usually ride, most of the passengers fell asleep shortly after the van got onto the expressway.


  1. I live vicariously through you since I will never have the experiences you guys are having :)

  2. Wow Brent! What an adventure you and your family are living. Good job on the half marathon, by the way. I ran the St. George marathon in 2000 and haven't run since, as I hurt my left knee a bit. Anyway, best of luck with all. Earl