Bangkok, 1992: the infamous Asok-Sukhumvit crossroads. Lane upon lane of cars, trucks, motorbikes turning in, turnout out, turning all about, it seems. No crossing lights or lines for pedestrians, no indication of how one should get across the seemingly impenetrable traffic ocean. But I have done this many times before since moving to Bangkok in December 1990, and I know just how to go about it. As I ready to step off the curb, a plaintiff Irish voice sings out, “How the be-jaysus do you get across here?” I laugh and say simply, “Follow me”. And he does. Like the Red Sea parting, as we step out into that rabble, it somehow makes its way round us, and we arrive, miraculously unharmed, at the other side of the road.
Cut to Bangkok, 2012: the infamous Asok-Sukhumvit intersection looks as daunting as it did 20 years ago. Only now, I am viewing it from above, serenely gliding by in air-conditioned iciness on the BTS (Bangkok Mass Transit System) Skytrain. It’s my first trip to Bangkok in 11 years, though I passed through on my way to Phuket in early 2005 to report on the aftermath of the tsunami.
The skytrain and other transport systems completed since 1999 have changed not only the face of the city, but the nature of what it is to live in or even just visit Bangkok. There are walkways everywhere now, up to stations and across major roads.
The trains are packed night and day, but Thais are ever polite, making way for others, giving up seats for those they deem might need them, and allowing people to exit the train before they enter. And even if you don’t have anything to hold on to, it’s hardly necessary, the ride is so smooth. In a week of catching trains all over the city, I saw no drunks, no thugs, no menaces, no rude people, no graffiti, just people going about their daily business. At 20-40 baht per ride, the train is not cheap for the average Thai (though it is cheap compared with public transport in Australia), but it certainly beats any other mode of transport across the city.
There is also a quick, efficient and cheap train service from Suvarnabhumi International Airport. However, there is a major problem: you will need to connect with a BTS or other train in the city, where most stations don’t have elevators or escalators, and you find yourself having to lug your bag up and down flights of stairs in the heat and humidity. The BTS has been much criticised for the lack of disabled access. So if you are elderly, unfit or in any way disabled, you’d still be better to take a cab.
And if you have a child in a stroller or pram, you’ll need to be travelling with another adult to manage. This hasn’t changed. Another memory I have from the early 1990s is on Sukhumvit Road, a major shopping, apartment and hotel area, when I came across a young English woman with her baby in a pram. She was standing on the curb, crying. When I asked her what was wrong, she said, “I’ve just moved here, and I just can’t see how I’ll ever get across this road”.
While I note that the landscape of the city has changed markedly in the last 20 years, and that you can readily buy western food and drink such as a cappuccino or a British sausage, in essence, Bangkok has hardly changed at all since I lived there in the late 1990s: I was still addressed as “Sir”, a term of respect, interchangeably with “Madame” (pronounced in the French way); my rudimentary street Thai was still needed to negotiate prices and times and to give street directions; the smells of lemongrass, fried garlic, basil and chilli still competed with nameless less pleasant ones; goods for sale in the markets looked like the same ones that had been on sale in 2001 or 1991.
There is one major change to daily life that I noticed: that is, I hardly walked on the streets. I used to walk everywhere from my apartment in central Bangkok, because taxis and tuk tuks were too slow. I knew every shop, market and clean toilet within a 3km radius.
This time, from the skytrain whizzing along Sukhumvit, I saw with pleasure that the small tailor’s shop where I used to get clothes made from 1997 to 2001, Mr Lucky’s, was still there. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to go in: I was too busy going other places fast. Last time I was there, the proprietor, Mr Lucky (naturally), had recently been back to India to marry a bride selected by his parents. I hope his life has lived up to his name, and that perhaps I will have time to drop by next time I am in Bangkok, which, I vow, will not be as long as 11 years from now.