Friday, 13 March 2015

The Amazing Race 26, Episode 4

Phuket (Thailand) - Bangkok (Thailand)

The teams of travellers on The Amazing Race 26 were given a weird array of tasks this week, most of which had little relevance to normal visitor activities. My friends with more experience and knowledge than I have about travel in Thailand found the episode relatively uninteresting.

The one choice the racers had to make that might have been a test of real-world travel skill was whether to travel around the city of Bangkok by water taxi or by “tuk-tuk” (three wheeled semi-enclosed motorized rickshaw).

Because the teams that chose each mode of transport had to perform different tasks along the way, it was hard for viewers to tell which was faster. And the choices offered to the cast members by the TV producers omitted other transit options that would probably have been the best choices for at least some portions of the racers’ assigned route.

What’s the best way to get around Bangkok?

Taxis are not the way to go. I’ve seen worse city traffic in Jakarta and São Paulo, among other places, but a taxi in Bangkok can get stuck in a traffic jam for hours even if you’re only trying to go a couple of miles. It’s frustrating even for passengers, and road rage among drivers seems to be common. I once took a cab to a business meeting in Bangkok, to keep my suit looking presentable in the heat and humidity. Half-way there, after an hour or so, my driver jumped out to argue with another cabbie over who had the right of way. He left the engine running, his door open, and the cab stopped in the middle of a gridlocked intersection, while he chased down another driver he thought had cut him off and they got into a combination of a fistfight and a kickboxing match. Unlike in Los Angeles, no firearms were involved. But I decided it was best to walk away and find another taxi.

Tuk-tuks are faster than taxis in some cities such as Delhi or Bombay where the chaotic traffic flow leaves them room to maneuver around and between cars and trucks. But the vehicular travel lanes on Bangkok streets are generally too narrow for a tuk-tuk to fit between adjacent lanes of cars and trucks. A tuk-tuk in Bangkok is noisier than a taxi, and open to the air (for better or worse) rather than air-conditioned, but generally no quicker than a cab.

There’s little reason for most tourists or ordinary visitors to hire a private water taxi the way the racers did. Similar “longtail” water buses offer frequent, relatively fast, relatively inexpensive service along and across the Chao Phraya River through the center of the city. Water traffic on the river is heavy, but not so much so as to significantly slow down the narrow longtail boats. Between points sufficiently close to the river, this is usually the fastest and most pleasant way to go.

The main drawback to the water buses is that stops at the designated landings are short, the boats don’t tie up to the docks while loading and unloading, and there are no gangways. Passengers have to step on and off the boat quickly when the boatman bumps it up against the pier, holding it in place only briefly by keeping the engine running.

Make sure you have a map that shows the water bus routes and landings — a paper map, not one on your phone or on another electronic device. This is not the place to expose your phone to snatch thieves, and you don’t want to risk dropping your phone in the river if the boat lurches and you grab for a handhold. I say again, carry a paper map. Keep track of your progress, so you’re poised to get off the boat promptly when you get to your landing.

Not mentioned on The Amazing Race 26 were any of Bangkok’s rail transportation options. Bangkok’s canals, which at one time were its primary transportation arteries, were filled in for roads rather than for railways. But over the last 20 years, Bangkok has gradually put in place a limited but quite useful, and still expanding, urban rail transit network.

Despite the currently small size of the network, it’s a bit confusing because there are three different urban rail systems with different operators and separate fares. A shared stored-value payment system — like the Oyster Card in London, the Octopus Card in Hong Kong, the Clipper Card in San Francisco, or the Charlie Card in Boston — is planned but not yet implemented.)

The elevated BTS “Skytrain” — the first system to be built, because it was assumed that it would be too difficult to keep rail tunnels below the shallow water table from flooding — and the underground MRT “Metro” were built and are operated by separate private concessionaires. The Airport Rail Link to downtown is operated by the state railway.

If your route is between points reasonably close to any of these lines, they are the best way to go. Fares are relatively high for locals, but that’s sometimes a benefit for foreign tourists since it means that these trains (like the similarly somewhat costly metro systems in, among other places, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro) are much less crowded than more affordable local mass transit options. In cities like these, poorer people walk or take buses, while only wealthier classes can afford the train — the faster, more comfortable, premium choice.

The most obvious mistake made by all of the contestants on The Amazing Race 26 this week was to take taxis from the Bangkok airport to their next assigned “route marker” downtown.

Where there’s a train between the airport and the city, it’s almost always a better choice than a taxi unless you have too much luggage to handle on public transit or you are traveling in a family or other small group that can share a cab. Especially if the airport is far out of town, it’s often quicker and cheaper to take the train from the airport to the city even if you still end up taking a taxi for the last few miles from the downtown rail station to your final destination.

The Amazing Race 26 is far from over, but broadcasts in the USA will be interrupted until 3 April 2015 to clear the airtime on CBS for college basketball. In the meantime, happy travels!

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 13 March 2015, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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