Thursday, May 7, 2009

Bangkok's Parallel Worlds

Terry lives in a somewhat faded 13-story building in a narrow alley within Bangkok's Makkasan district, near the Victory Monument. From his tiny outdoor kitchen, on a 10th-story concrete terrace with cracked floors, the view is of high rises and highways well into the distance. The building is a solidly working class haunt, its buckling stucco walls and dimly-lit hallways representing middle class luxury in the developing world.

The whole city is accessible from this point. How you get from point A to point B is, however, an interesting question. In the two days I've been here, I've traveled by air-conditioned and non-air-conditioned bus, on klong (canal) boats that traverse Bangkok's narrow waterways, by the Chao Phraya River ferry, on Bangkok's sleek and modern sky trains and subways, on foot, and on the back of a motorcycle, holding on for dear life.

It's something of a metaphor for Thai society that these separate transportation systems do not intersect. Take the sky train, operational since 1999, and Bangkok's underground metro system, begun in 2004, as examples. For the sky train, passengers purchase "smart cards" - price depending upon the distance - which they feed into a turnstile upon entering and exiting the platform. The subways, by contrast, use a round black token for single trips. Both are clean, modern, air-conditioned, and efficient, but they exist in parallel universes. In the few parts of town where sky train and subway meet, to transfer from one to the other means exiting the system, walking in the dense heat to a separate station, and entering the other system's self-contained world.

Transportation segregation occurs along class lines as well. At anywhere from 18-35 Baht per ride (roughly 50 cents to a dollar, US), the Sky Train falls outside the range of Bangkok's urban poor. These folks ride the 8-Baht Green Mercedes buses, nicknamed "bone shakers," famous for their drivers being high on amphetamines. Hot, loud, jarring, these are the opposite, in terms of comfort, of the sky train and the subway. The bone-shakers battle the cars, tuk-tuks, taxis, and motorcycles on Bangkok's smog-filled streets, while the sky train and subway, the transport of office workers and expats, segregate themselves above and below the city.

It's hard to understand this lack of transportation coordination without knowing something about Thailand's complex power structure. This is a country where the balance of power between military, government, business, and even religious leaders constantly shifts. Corruption, gerrymandering, payola - more goes on below the radar than any outsider, and few Thais I suppose, could ever understand. Power is practically feudal here, balanced among individual fiefdoms. If you want to understand Thailand beyond the level of smiling waiters and sunny beaches, begin with this premise.

There are, in fact, many Bangkoks, and the city's patchwork urban transportation system reflects it.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like Seattle: Bus, monorail, streetcar, light rail, those bicycle guys by the stadiums.

    Keep it coming!