"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
nineteen. 99 and rising.
I’ve taken to blogging in the a/c’d rooms of the national library, around the corner from my quiet Thewet neighborhood guesthouse. the entire city has been melting, and it’s official: a big golf match was postponed yesterday after the participants started suffering heat symptoms. these incessant temperatures, which threaten to denature the proteins in my brain thereby nullifying this entire Branner endeavor, gives the city a strange rhythm of unsleep. at midnight when I lie down under the fan, the street is still noisy with late-night street-stall diners. at 4am, when it’s finally cool enough for breathing to slow, the first trucks, motorcycles, and tuks tuks are already noisily hauling their goods to the market down the street. by 5:30 there is another lull until 7 or 8am, when the traveling coffee crowd begins to stir and with it, the tuk tuks and cab drivers that lay in wait to whisk us away to the temples and shopping malls.
Bangkok is inundated with enough tourists to support an unrivalled diversity of travel scenes. in contrast to the singularity of Mumbai’s Colaba, or HK’s lower Kowloon, Bangkok boasts a multitude of tourist enclaves, each with a slightly distinct character. I already described Khao San, which caters to the under 25, bikini-clad crowd. now I’m in small, quiet Thewet, where European couples with babies and the over-30 solo crowd mingle next to the lively local vegetable-market. in two days I will move east to modern Sukhumvit, where an even older crowd patronizes more expensive bars (both regular and girlie-packed) which are haphazardly tucked between isolated malls and mid-rise hotels. surely more on this when I move there…
3.28 to Pratunam / Siam
I thought an air-conditioned cinema would give respite to my heat-and-pollution wary body but in typical Bangkok fashion, getting to trendy, shoppy Siam was more than half the battle and adventure. my hesitation to take cabs, both out of interest in public transit and also out of an aversion to sitting in endless traffic jams, is slowly revealing Bangkok’s connectivity – often unintentional, but still there. for example, from Thewet and Banglampu, which are in the northwest quadrant of the city and thus river (and not rail) bound, one can take a river ferry south to the ferry terminus, where the Skytrain terminus is also located. you CAN cross this city using non-automotorized public transit; the problem is that few have the time and patience to do so, for it demands such roundabout routes. and the bus system is extensive enough to render such detours unnecessary --
UNLESS, of course, your feet can carry you faster than the speed of a bus stuck in traffic, which was the case en route to Siam. the Red Cross Fair has rendered the Si Ayuthaya artery blocked off (and parallel arteries clogged); 20 minutes of bus-stop waiting left me antsy in the sweltering afternoon heat so I walk down the now familiar, canal-following Krung Kaseng to the Bobae Market area. here the east-west Saen Saep (quickly becoming my favorite linescape in the city) finds its confluence with the radial Phadang Krung Kasem canal, and here i get ‘lost’ for 30 fortuitous minutes trying to find the nearest canal taxi dock. this unintentional navigation leads me through maze-like alleys of cramped Chinese storefronts, across the national rail tracks where an empty train lies in wait, through a quiet temple neighborhood of chanting monks and tall trees, finally reaching access to the canal, along which I had to further walk for awhile … past traditional single-storey wooden homes, lushly shielded from the sun and splash by plantings which cling to the metal safety barricades (which also serve as jungle gyms for the children). the sight of the Rama VI overpass, cutting through and a mere 15 feet above this quiet neighborhood, is startling to say the least, but has been turned into an open-space asset underneath which people play soccer or do aerobics and where mothers bring their children to the playground. here along the canal, tight groups of men have betting pools on the ground, over which I have to gingerly step amidst welcome laughter and jovial curiosity.
the canal taxi ride is crowded with afternoon commuters. the ride provides an amazing glimpse of the city’s cross section, barely discernable above our heads through the slit above the protective plastic tarp. the change from low-rise, tightly packed traditional wooden buildings to mid-rise blocks with shiny glass towers in the near distance is dramatic and sudden, such that when I disembark at Pratunam I feel as if I’ve landed on another planet. here, the speed of development and the influence of consumption with all of its requisite BIG-ME-SHINY-LOOK-SEES has generated a disorienting helter-skelter matrix of disassociated malls (one of which is paradoxically named ‘ZEN,’) movietrons, and market stalls, fully influenced by but only marginally oriented around the nearby Skytrain overpass. after walking in / through / out of 4 such malls I end up at the motherlode of Bangkok’s newest darling: the Paragon. circular in circulation, the 5 storied mall has a a gym and yoga studio on its 4th floor, a Mazarati-Lamborghini-Porsche showroom on its 5th, and my long-sought-after cinema (adjacent to bowling alley) on the 6th. I get lost trying to figure out where to enter, where to exit, where to buy tickets, etc. etc. as if boarding an airplane, I get to choose my leather-upholstered reclining seat upon purchasing my ticket, and wait for the flick in swanky lounge chairs. the Paragon is an aural cacophony, every floor seems to have its own music which clashes and reverberates up the atrium to collect in the unwitting eardrum … after a full 30 minutes of commercials + previews + standing for the national anthem + video of the King on the big screen, the unfortunate ‘Fountain’ finally begins…
3.30 to Sukhumvit
a day-long example of one of the above-described detours, where a 30 minute Chao Phraya river ride lands me at a southern dock (Marine Depot) followed by a 20 minute walk along Th. Charoen Krung (Bangkok’s first paved road). this sector of Chinatown is full of mom & pop machine and metal shops that give way to Hualamphong Station (the National Rail terminal) where the Metro’s terminus is also located. as I said, things DO eventually line up – although I feel I must half-force them to. and, in contrast to Hong Kong, where indoor infrastructure renders going outside/touching the ground unnecessary, here station interchanges are merely geographic, positioning the rider close enough to exit one system and reenter another.
the Metro: cool, white, & silent, with glass barricades and small plastic token tickets. compartments are configured like Shenzhen’s metro; I’m sure these new systems all look to each other for inspiration. (I recall Mumbai’s train signs: undeniably like the London Tube’s red and blue circles). being underground, the Metro is not as much of a billboard as the Skytrain, where every train has its own corporate sponsor (Nokia being a big one) which covers the windows in shade and paint, blocking out the glare of the city below.
soon after emerging at Sukhumvit station (another interchange where the above-ground exit almost lines up with the Skytrain stairs), I indulge in a heinous act of…global fast-food patronization! the snazzy window walls and the Ronald McDonald poised inThai greeting (hands together, head bowed ) promise an a/c view of the Skytrain which races by & above, only a few feet away, and a rare ‘Coke light’ (hard to find in a country that doesn’t value phenylketoneureics as much as our diet-driven culture does). I’ve noticed, both in HK and here, that the McD’s serves as an unlikely refuge for all the expats and tourists who look as if they would never be caught dead in a McD’s back home (ex. the well-physiqued businessman, or the ultra-stylish). but we’re all red-faced & somehow thankful for a dose of predictable standardization and a cool, affordable place to sit. god, I sound like a walking advertisement for this vector of cheap beef and high sodium, which has usurped a prime piece of urban Bangkok real estate.
after perusing the area for a place to spend my last few days in this city, I again decide against the stand-still cab & bus and head north two blocks to…the Saen Saep! it is now dark and the moon is almost full above the glow of white blocks. the last stop puts me within a 25 minute walk home, along the wide boulevard of Ratcha Domoen Nok, which leads straight into the Royal Plaza at its north end. every nighttime brings with it a heightened breeze, and beneath the line of trees I can once again let the slow stroll and the wind clear away the day’s sweat and exhaustion.
[nb: part of the visual disorganization I find in Bangkok might be driven in the small-scale by the extremely low-wires, slung everywhere old and new, and the endless changes in ground level. I learned the other day at the Thompson house that traditional Thai belief posits that demons can only travel along a continuous ground plane; thus old homes’ doorways have 8” high floor jambs. this belief may likely have something to do with Bangkok’s propensity to flood.]
pause in Ayuthaya.
90 km north of Bangkok this World-Heritage site is a collection of silent ruins situated in a large expanse of dry grass and large, shade-giving trees. walking between the ancient temples is doable (but warm). the 15th century walls and stupas were built of plaster-covered brick which are now beginning to do as they please by undulating and tilting every which way. rows of broken sculptures of headless and split-bodied Buddhas in various poses of meditation give the temples a timeless quality, and the lack of cars is a welcome respite from Bangkok.
the train ride up here at 6am was revealing; the national rail tracks parallel the highways out of Bangkok for a significant distance. I saw another long stretch of an unfinished elevated expressway, running alongside the train, concrete frames-sans-roadtop continuing north-south as far as the eye can see. the rocking of the car, the warmth, and this repetitive, strangely peaceful sight lulled me to much-needed sleep.