Bangkok in Brief

Bangkok - Debra Efroymson

Bangkok - Debra Efroymson

In Bangkok for a short spell, I find myself frequently looking out the window of my hotel to watch the traffic moving slowly down the narrow soi (lane). There are taxis, passenger cars, tuk-tuks and motorcycles, a surprising number of vans and SUVs, vendors pushing carts loaded with rambutan, people riding bicycles, and many people walking, often carrying groceries. Some on foot pause to pray at the shrine next to my hotel. I watch an overweight old man with long white hair swept to one side of his head get up from an outside table after his breakfast and saunter back to his shop. I watch as a woman stops a push cart and the man there makes her an iced coffee. A dog turns endless circles before relieving himself; a cat appears, following a woman who sets out for it a thatch tray of rice. There is a mix of nationalities; Thai of course dominates, but there are also Africans, Indians, Arabs and other Asians as well as the occasional westerner.

Watching it all, it is not hard to picture the scene minus the cars. Most people aren’t in them (though I rarely see children; perhaps they only go through the soi in vans to and from school? and where are they on the weekend?). The neighbourhood is so vibrant and mixed, it is easy to imagine that most trips could be made by foot or bicycle, and there are plenty of public transit options available nearby: buses, the skytrain, even the new BRT (Bus Rapid Transit).

The intersections are no better. In some places there are timings for the vehicles, but that only refers to one piece of the chaos, and in complicated intersections, there are multiple turnings. Yet there are no lights to signal when pedestrians should cross, and rare are the breaks from all the turning vehicles. Just as I see a gap, believe that it is safe, and start to cross, a taxi or motorbike may come flying around the corner. Life would be safer if I never crossed a major street, but then I would lose access to a delightful south Indian restaurant, to the skytrain, and to lovely and popular Lumpini Park, all within a 20 minute walk. (The safest way I’ve found to get to the park, is to go underground, walk through the Metro station, and go back up. This adds several minutes to my trip and involves passing through a metal detector. Could no one figure out that it would be wise to have pedestrian crossings at all the entrances to the park?

Despite it all, I enjoy myself here. There is an Indian temple across the major road; on this side, a CD shop constantly plays Tibetan chants. Vendors, shops of all kinds, and restaurants are everywhere. I can easily get my daily fix of slightly sour mango and succulent cantaloupe. It is a simple matter to get around the city without ever getting in a car or taxi. And it is easier for me to accept the devout worship of the car, the lack of safe pedestrian crossings, the parking spaces within Lumpini Park, and the absurdity of multi-level car parking, because I’ve never known the city any different, and after all, I’m just visiting.

So on the one hand, with all its elevated expressways and parking, Bangkok feels like a city beyond saving. On the other hand, it has the entire structure of a carfree city, in its dense mixed fabric and multimodal system. I can imagine the many levels of car parking becoming affordable housing, to reduce commuting distances and bring down the price of a home. An expanded BRT system could greatly reduce the use of cars in the central city. The city is flat; it would be easy to cycle in, and many already do cycle on the lanes.

Fuel prices may or may not make an impact here. Obesity is increasing, but it is not clear that complacency is declining. Traffic congestion has long been an expensive problem, but politics has prevented the more inexpensive and sensible solutions from being implemented; vastly more affordable BRT took far longer to do than the skytrain or Metro because it was perceived as taking space away from the car.

Whatever happens, I can always hope. The ongoing political crises serve as a reminder that concentrating most of the nation’s wealth in the cities, and doing little to help those in the countryside (or the urban slums) is not a great recipe for peace. If the government spent less money subsidizing the car and more money subsidizing people, imagine what could be possible, here and elsewhere!

—Debra Efroymson

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