"The city is being swept away by the metropolis. This action does not just replace one noun with another, but radically turns one state of affairs into a state of perpetual motion. As a collective action -- a verb more than a noun -- the metropolis destabilizes our concepts of time and place. With the dissolution of the city into the forever- emerging metropolis, our existence slides into permanent mobility." - L. Lerup, in After the City


eighteen. digesting Bangkok.
arr. 3.15, Ko Tao 3.20-3.26, solo Bangkok 3.27…
think food, think pink, think flowing waters of teeming browns and grays. think a city full of yellow polo shirts, bearing ‘I love the King’ stenciled over bunny rabbits. think 7-11s and sidewalks-turned-noodle stalls at night. think larger-than-life elevated expressways, underneath which buffets charge $1.50 for a pile of spicy lunch. think ‘endings,’ where the skytrain aborts abruptly, like the once watery sois (lanes) which serviced now-paved canals. perhaps water once had a logic here; its concrete counterparts leave me confused.

my Bangkok blog is long overdue, in part thanks to a fortuitous overlap with Ivan and a long-awaited visit from JC (whose much-needed planning eyes were no less dazed by the map of this visually cacophonous city), plus a trip down to Ko Tao (diving-mecca island extraordinaire: band camp - tuba + scuba). now I’m back and solitary again, left to my devices to seek a/c air and a logic to the way this city moves. Mumbai and Hong Kong, although vastly different, both had a legibility to them which here continues to evade me.

getting around … the Chao Praya river continues to be a viable means of transit for the western n-s length of the city, as does the pungent frothy water of the east-west Saen Saep canal which connects Pratunam and beyond (e) to Banglampu (w). auto traffic is horrendous; extremely cheap, ultra frigid taxis ($2 for most areas within the city) provide a respite from the oven-air but sometimes serve more as a way to pass the time in goose-bumped comfort than an efficient means of getting from here-to-there. buses present the same road-bound challenge, tuk tuks slightly better for their helter-skelter ability to violate the center line and weave in and out of traffic. nonetheless, water and rail transit are often the better options.

unfortunately, a significant section of the central city is left untouched by these north-south linescapes, the historical western city and its multitudes of wats (temples) served well by the river, and the glitzy shine of Bangkok’s eastern mall-filled spread inextricably linked to the skytrain and metro lines. the national rail lines begin and end in Bangkok and could provide the infrastructural basis for serving this nether zone but as yet, these lines only provide a verdant swath alongside which older residential neighborhoods remain. a transit map of the city thus reads as a west-east timeline in section, a fossilized record of urban growth: river, national rail, skytrain, metro. a perusal of the royal transportation planning department’s website boasts a dozen maps for future metro extension, but given that existing systems seem barely completed (as per the eerie, abandoned pillars of the unfinished southeastern expressway) these proposals seem at best a distant dream.

whether because of this transportation melee or perhaps responsible for it, experiencing a sense of Bangkok’s ‘zones,’ complete with character and discernable transitions, demands more reliance on maps and labels than in the past 2 cities I have visited. I described it to JC as a city being comprised of a multiplicity of smaller-scaled sections, repeated over and over, rather than a city with a cohesive spatial narrative. a typical section might be road, sidewalk-cum-thicket of sidewalk eateries (especially at night once shop-fronts close), storefronts below 3-4 storey residential blocks, and beyond this a network of neighborhood homes. at any point, however, without seeming reason, this texture might be disrupted by a horrendous high-rise, placed without apparent rhyme or reason. a drink at one of Bangkok’s skybars (in the state tower or the banyan tree hotel) is a must, if only to look out on the city below and realize that the disorientation on the ground level is no misperception. towers rise willy-nilly throughout the city, which lacks a cohesive corporate core. as frustrating though as this indigestible panorama is to navigate, perhaps it provides a sort of liberation from this city being easily comprehended and thus seamlessly consumed and objectified by the likes of me.

3.28 Thewet – Phayathai (BTS skytrain) – Saen Saep (Canal)
the transit spines do become an organizing force, for better or worse, yet even this effect is short-lived and can abruptly ends without warning. a long delightful morning walk from Thewet through Dusit’s planned parkland left me cooled and happy from the government-sponsored sprinkler system. Si Ayuthaya’s long perspective view leads westward down a tree-lined sidewalk and eastward to a lone tower in the Sukhumvit area. the ‘red cross’ fair at Dusit’s royal plaza has resulted in a horde of temporary retail stores sequestering the sidewalk and the edge of the busy street for real-estate, leaving pedestrians squeezed between ‘storefronts’ and speeding cars. (I had seen this ‘borrowing’ on a previous walk with JC, in which a row of old wooden houses had simply put up a metal barricade along the street to claim their own residential ‘alley,’ replete with plantings 2ft. away from the major thoroughfare).

further east…crossing and then following the national railroad tracks just past Dusit was revealing; here the east-west line joins the north-south, creating a triangular neighborhood that feels lost in time. a jungle of green grows up around railside shacks, which give way to better-built one-room bungalows which all lead to an odd circular reservoir-cum-neighborhood plaza in the middle of this triangle. although this area is bounded by three railroad tracks plus two major roads to the east (the ground-level Rama VI and the elevated Phayathai Expressway), within it is quiet and car-free, recalling Mumbai’s Kotachiwadi hamlet. the area just outside the plaza & beneath the overpass serves as the local restaurant sector, with 3 or 4 foodstalls set up on the sidewalk in the shade of the concrete mammoth.

following the east-west rail for a kilometer or so reveals more humble, trackside residential neighborhoods. in a surprising gesture of civic consideration, however, the railway boasts a slightly elevated concrete walkway along either side, complete with benches and the occasional garbage bin. this zone not only provides a place to walk but also creates a small buffer zone between the tracks and the houses and restaurants that line it. at one such restaurant I had lunch, stepping off the walkway and into a shady, crowded tent where the shirt-tie-skirt lunch-hour crew from 2 blocks away chooses the local vibe and cheaper prices over their more sterile company cafeterias. this rail-line neighborhood ends a few hundred meters further to the east, when it hits the skytrain overpass + station + requisite shopping area. looking back along this longitudinal swath from the vantage point of the Phayathai skytrain station I am struck by the long, anomalous line of vegetation I have just left, the low-rise traditional homes hidden below, the sporadic white towers to either side rising incongruously.

skytrain to National Stadium stop … where I survive the brunt of afternoon heat inside the massive MBK shopping center. disoriented, suddenly I am (almost) back in Shenzhen’s Luoho Commercial City, or upon the market streets of Mumbai. the MBK is a vertical interior escalator’ed mini-city of cheap clothing stalls, cell-phone goods, accessories, rip-off brand-names. the hawking is less aggressive here, tourist-shoppers more scantily clad and more willing to sport Mohawks and tattoos, reminding me once again that Bangkok is THE budget travel enclave of Southeast Asia and perhaps of the world [* see below]. this followed by a stroll to a different world in the Jim Thompson house, 2 blocks away and alongside the Saen Saep. Thompson, a trained mid-century American architect, created an oasis of traditional rural Thai architecture which he tastefully filled with Thai and Chinese antiques (mostly porcelains, Buddhist sculpture, and wooden furniture pieces). the brainchild behind Jim Thompson silk products, he was responsible for creating the world market for these gorgeous fabrics. at the age of 61 he mysteriously disappeared while traveling in Malaysia, and remains something of a quirky cult-figure for artsy residents and expats. not surprisingly, the brightly-lit retail shop is the most noticeable part of the current complex, inside which I overheard an older woman say to her husband regarding the scarves, “this is just like the stuff you can buy in India!” perhaps not quite, but close enough to make one once again feel part of a global traveling entourage whose tastes local retailers astutely discern and cater to.

the canal ride back to the Banglampu area was turbulent, fast and fearsome, if only for the inadvertent splashing of the unwilling passengers (self included). the canal is only 35’ish feet wide, the chop ferociously slamming back and forth between the retaining walls. the boat is narrow, with a lip upon which fearless fare collectors walk up and down, their vulnerable bodies cloaked from head to toe in heavy shirts and pants and hats. what a job – these folks were young and fit and seemed like university students trying to make a few extra baht. the work – or rather, the smells and the prospect of being tossed into this opaque-stew-called-water, made waiting tables feel like pure idle.

[* in retrospect: the MBK’s spectacle is nothing compared to the two-lane street of Khao San road, which I had been variously warned about by fellow travelers. JC and I stayed there our first few days in Bangkok, and realized with a disturbed laugh that it was meta³: the hippy-tourist scene here is so pronounced that it has become an attraction for locals, who sometimes become temporary girlfriends, and in aloof observance, JC and i, tourists ourselves, watched all this. I’m sure there were other travelers watching us in our noticeably over-25 conservative garb. Khao San is such an extreme nexus of ‘independent’ travel it has turned it into a packaged parody, where now it is difficult to actually arrange anything independently. combo transit + lodging packages for the independent traveler are so ubiquitous that many of us seem to have ceased to arrange anything for ourselves, even though in reality this is still quite easy to do as a visit to rail station ticket booth will reveal. in parallel, searching out your own store or restaurant can occasionally be challenge, as some drivers and pedestrians are too happy to recommend a better route or a better establishment. this renders the line between subtle hawking and friendly advice so freakishly thin that it challenges one’s own limits of skepticism to the core. ]

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