Any time you’re looking for a true taste of local flavor, I would recommend taking a ride on the local bus. I must warn you, it’s not for the faint of heart, and the results are either elating or steam coming from the ears maddening, but nonetheless, I guarantee it will be a memorable experience.
The buses of Bangkok are a species all of their own, coming in all shapes sizes and colors, melding together into a secret sort of code which indicates the cost and destination of the bus. Once you get past the secret code business, each bus is assigned to two numbers (the specific meanings of which still remain a mystery) placed strategically along the front or side of the vehicle, making it a bit of a scavenger hunt to find the correct bus. This just made the challenge of navigating through the city even more exciting.
My misadventures on public transport started as a youngster, at the age of five to be precise. I rode the school bus to kindergarten each day. Eventually the route got overloaded and being the last stop, I was frequently re-routed, shuffled onto an alternate bus, or-worst case scenario-picked up in a sketchy brown striped suburban owned by the school district and transported to school. It wasn’t uncommon for me to accidently board the wrong bus or for the driver to forget about my stop altogether, forcing me running to the front yelling at him to let me off. I hated the school bus. It was hot, the kids were loud and I somehow always got the worst seat next to the fattest, smelliest kid.
When I got over my traumatic Lil’ Tyke bus misfortunes, and before my driving days, I began riding the city bus to my job. It had a tendency for being late or straight up not showing up at all and I had a track record of catching the wrong bus, or missing my stop; a fatal combination. One day I got so lost on the bus, that I had to call my mom to leave work and come rescue me. That was the end of me and the bus.
On my very first day in Bangkok I was feeling particularly savvy and decided to take my chances on the local bus directions my guesthouse had provided from the airport. I caught a bus filled with fellow Thai travelers and airline employees-this was much too far from the beaten Western backpacker route-and was transported to the local bus station. There I boarded bus 252, as instructed by my online directions with a slew of locals who didn’t speak a lick of English.
“Get off at 89/56 Sukhumvit Road, after about 45 minutes on the bus,” read the directions. I reread the sentence. What was 89/56 supposed to mean? Was it 89 or 56? Make up your mind people! I wasn’t about to take my chances guessing on one or the other and spending the rest of the day intimately getting to know Bangkok and the other 36 numbers between. I showed the address to the bus driver, who looked clueless, responding that the bus didn’t go there. Luckily, I was still at the bus station, so I flirted with the idea of getting off the bus and searching for one that could guarantee me a stop at 89/56 Sukhumvit Road. But, once again remembering no one spoke English, I decided to take my chances with 252.
As the bus departed the terminal, I started timing the ride. Just as promised, 40 minutes into the journey I saw the Sukhumvit Road sign, and increasing numbers every block. Perfect! I screeched with joy motioning for the driver to stop as we approached 89. I happily departed the bus, and saw number 56 on the opposite side of the road; there was a method to their madness after all. Within a few blocks I was inside my guesthouse, thoroughly impressed with my local bus navigational skills.
Map Reading Gone Wrong
During my second visit to Bangkok, I was feeling restless for an adventure and set out to find the Vietnamese Embassy via local bus. The route appeared pretty simple on Google Maps and I could get there without having to transfer buses. I scribbled down the address along with a quickly drawn map of the bus stop and set out on my adventure. The bus came just as I arrived at the stop, and I boarded it confidently as if I had been riding these busses my whole life. I was soon on a journey meandering through the side streets of Chinatown. I was trying to follow the route outlined on the Google Maps page I had saved, but nothing seemed to match up.
I strained my eyes to catch street names as we whizzed by swerving tuk tuks and vendors pushing carts of fried rice, traveling further and further away from the center of Bangkok. I knew I was lost, but I didn’t want to admit it to myself or my fellow Thai passengers. I shyly asked the ticket collector about a specific street we were meant to cross and she along with five other eavesdropping passengers exclaimed, “ooohhhh” in their best we feel sorry for this tourist tone of voice, “wrong way, get off GET OFF!”
Their urgent cries startled me out of my seat and I was ready to jump off the bus, belongings in hand, as if it were a ticking bomb about to blow. The driver slowed down just enough for me to jump from the moving vehicle before speeding off again. I was left in a cloud of dust and bus exhaust as locals leaned from the bus window pointing and yelling for me to cross the street and catch the opposite direction bus.
I waited at the stop recovering from local bus gone wrong. Ten minutes, thirty minutes, no bus. Was I at the right place? Had I misunderstood the locals? Frustrated and anxious to get to the embassy, I began to walk in the direction my local bus had come from. I soon found myself wandering through the same circular streets in Chinatown and knew it was time to ask for help.
I approached the friendliest looking man on the street and was soon surrounded by four Thais chattering and offering me their best local bus advice. Before I knew it, I was on the correct local bus, headed the correct direction and was at my stop, the embassy. Success never felt so sweet after a day of navigational strife. I eventually re-read the Google Map depicting the local bus route I was meant to take, and to my amazement realized I had forgotten a minor detail; Thais drive on the left. Silly me, I had caught the bus on the wrong side of the road. Looks like I won’t be repeating that mistake any time soon.
Backpacker vs. Bus: The Ultimate Showdown
After a voluminous victory and major mishap, I was ready to go all or nothing with this bus game. This time the target seemed simple but Google as I may, I could not find an address, website or location description for the mysterious place I was headed. Sai Tai Mai-the bus station for long distance buses was off the tech radar. Google aside, this challenge was strictly between me and my information gathering skills from the locals, and I was determined to win. I armed myself with a photograph of the alleged Sai Tai Mai, a phonetic spelling and was off.
Luckily, the first lady I spoke to gave me everything I needed; the bus number, the location of the stop and Sai Tai Mai written in Thai. I waited at the bus stop with 20 Thais. Soon their busses came and 20 new Thais appeared. Locals and bus drivers alike had assured me I was at the correct bus stop, but bus 740 was nowhere to be seen.
As this cycle continued my anxiety grew. I was always the last one standing, surely someone else had to be waiting for 740, right? Another woman waited at the stop with me for 20 minutes and eventually ran into the street, flagging down a cab to take her to wherever she was going. Maybe I should follow suit. Maybe I had been too rash with my bus skills and was stubbornly waiting for a phantom ride. My mind ran through the taxi vs. bus scenario, then, there it was. A seven faintly emerging from the throng of traffic, a four, and a zero! I ran to the door, anxiously boarding the vehicle and shouting, “Sai Tai Mai,” to be confirmed with a hurrah of “chais, yes” from the passengers. Triumph was mine. I had come full circle from my elementary days and defeated the ominous local bus system of Bangkok. Maybe the tables had finally turned and the bus gods were looking favorably upon me, or maybe I had just finally become bus smart. Either way, I ended up with a few funny experiences and I’m sure the locals got a good laugh at the tourist trying to ride the local bus.