Getting There: Tuk-Tuks, Trains and Boats

Part of the adventure of travel is experimenting with getting around to see how other folks do it.

This trip has had a fair amount of that.

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When heading for the airport in Chiang Mai, the hotel staff urged that I take a tuk-tuk three-wheeler rather than a taxi as it would be quicker.

Indeed, it was.

A Thai tuk-tuk is sleeker, longer and lower down than the Indian or Sri Lankan models.

Faster, too.

If you sit upright you miss the view and if you slouch in your seat you feel like a British sahib.

I played sahib.

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I mentioned the other day that Bangkok traffic is beyond horrible and part of the solution for that is various train systems, including the Skytrain, which I rode yesterday.

Tickets are sold at an electronic kiosk, can be purchased with coins only, and are for same day use, a fact which I learned the hard way.

Many folks line up first to get change from a station attendant and then queue up to purchase a ticket based on zones; mine was about $1.25 for a ride on two trains.

Then, up to the train platform where there are sliding glass partitions between riders and the train until it arrives and stops.

Passengers queue up in lines so arriving passengers can exit the train, a very orderly system.

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The cars are modern, very clean and upcoming stops are known by english announcements and signage, some electronic.

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Inside, the train is open end-to-end and was as nice a system as I have been on.

Credit: Logan

Credit: Logan

The train trip was to head over to the 230 mile long Chao Phraya river which cuts through Bangkok on its way to the Gulf of Thailand.

In the city it is a major way to both get around and transport goods.

There are hundreds of barges, ferries, work-boats, water taxis and municipal “water-busses” plying the river, stopping at piers or simply crossing from side-to-side.

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Based on a little research and some advice I was aiming for an orange-flagged municipal water bus that traveled up and down the river, stopping often and costing about 50 cents.

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It turned out to be a great choice if you didn’t mind figuring out the rules on the run, literally.

These main piers are busy places with dozens of boats making quick stops each hour, some for just a few seconds.

There are no intelligble signs and no one to explain what is happening.

I decided to back off and watch the action for about 15 minutes to try and catch the rhythm and pace.

I saw one hapless couple seperated, one on the pier and one on the departing boat when they failed to move quickly enough.

After watching a bit it was easy to pick out the orange flag flying astern and I made the boarding without incident.

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My seatmate for part of the voyage was a three or four year old Thai fellow sitting on his dad’s lap.

He sat quetly for a bit and then started acting up out of boredom, I suppose.

It began to be a bit much until I noticed that his laughing and making of monkey faces, complete with index fingers pulling cheeks apart, was absolutely driving a group of older Chinese ladies up the wall.

They looked on with fierce and repeated scowls of disapproval.

Suddenly, it seemed hilarious and I joined in with my own monkey face.

Sadly, my attempt sobered him up and the ladies were happy once again.

Next time I’ll keep my monkey face to myself.

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As a sailor, I found the on-board operations fascinating.

The boat is of fairly narrow beam and about a hundred feet in length with entry and exit happening only from the stern.

There is a pilot up front, a deckhand in the stern and some ticket takers in between.

All communication between the deckhand and pilot is by a whistle blown by the deckhand.

He uses it to inform the pilot if a stop needs to be made so a passenger can disembark at an upcoming pier, the pilot can see on his own if there are those wishing to board there.

Things happen fast.

Underway the boat does about 15 mph and approaching a pier he is under power until much of the length of the boat has passed the stop.

Then, it’s full reverse on the prop and a sharp turn of the rudder as the boat both slows and the stern swings toward the pier, all to the sound of shrill and various whistle blows indicating the need for more astern or a tighter rudder.

Then, with a single whistle blow, the deckhand steps ashore, drops a line around a dockside pylon and it’s time to get on or off and to be damned fast about it.

Some stops were five seconds and the meeting of the boat hull with the pier wasn’t elegant, often accompanied with a loud bang and a shudder.

For less than a dollar I spent hours seeing Bangkok from the river that runs through it, money (and time) very well spent.

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