"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


twenty-one. Sukhumvit & Nana-land
4.3 to 4.6 loops & rides
my last afternoon in Bangkok is cloudy and “cool,” (as in beads, rather than streams, of perspiration), somehow quiet. the city is already dreaming of imminent Songkran (lunar new year full of heat-quenching water festivities and trips back home). I’ve ridden the Skytrain, the Metro, the boats and ferries, and walked the eternal distances between them; still there is little to summarize in this city that remains unfinished. Sukhumvit’s proximity to the rail lines makes it a nexus for the over 40 traveling crowd who prefer the convenience of here over the atmospheric sector of the old city. air conditioned rooms are a blessing in more ways than one, as the number of reverberating construction sites abound along the Skytrain’s path, one block away. these sites are all in different stages of completion and are often congruent with the Skytrain stations. some are only the gutted remains of a soon-to-be-destroyed building, others the graffiti’d shell of a never-got-finished project, staring back at eye-level with the well-dressed who wait for the Skytrain. still others are raw open pits of debris and broken columns, or towers of wet concrete draped in blue & green construction ‘pantyhose.’

Sukhumvit (and around) is not about beauty or preservation, but about easy access to and creation of a traveler’s fantasies, be they tiny bodies for the middle-aged ‘sexpats’ (an LP term I appreciate), expressionless towers of global hotels, any number of malls located along the Skytrain route, any number of cheap tailor shops (which Thai residents seem to avoid like the plague) or travel agents or cowboy bars or bizarre bastardizations of the truck-stop diner. further east down Sukhumvit the Skytrain ends abruptly at On Nut, but a row of pillars running down the middle of the road promise further expansion. the future is built here: a future wife for a lonely man, a future mall to outdo the Paragon, a future trip to the islands to begin one’s ‘real’ trip to Thailand. this gives the area an existentially vertiginous feeling that is most conducive to ‘losing oneself,’ if that is what you’re here to do.

the performance is not hard to escape though; my two long loop walks, beginning and ending back on Sukhumvit Rd., have taken me through vastly different sectors of this city. walking is the only way to see the city from eye-level while in motion. the Skytrain: above. the boats: slightly below. the Metro: very below. buses: above and barely moving. taxi: in the thick of it but also, sometimes stagnant … so much so that rather than take a cab through the city during lunch rushhour the other day (from Thewet southeast to Sukhumvit) I was advised to circumnavigate the city center via ferry and Skytrain. Bangkok proper is not particularly large, if measured in distance. if measured in transit time on the road, however, it becomes a megalopolis.

to Khlong Toei market 4.3
a wonderful loop walk, driven by errand-running but as usual becoming a detour that reveals so much more. down Sukhumvit east to Ratchada Phisek (which parallels the metro line underground). this major road runs south through a mid & high-rise area and along a large, pond & jogger-filled park, past the National Convention Center, where the MTR station emerges to exhale a slew of riders. here at the station, on this otherwise empty stretch of ‘official’ feeling sidewalk, foodstalls and motorcycle taxis wait for hungry, tired MTR passengers and convention center employees. at most every station this phenomena exists with varying degrees of vivacity, depending on both the traffic in/out flow of the station, and the residential scale of the surrounding neighborhood. orange vest-clad motorcycle taxi drivers lie around seeking shade like tired dogs until a train arrives and with it a new cargo of short-distance patrons. at more outlying stations, makeshift pickup truck-cabs which can carry a half-dozen supplement the motorcycle taxis. still, in terms of their ability to weave through traffic, and bounce up sidewalks if need be (everywhere are handbuilt wood and stone ‘ramps’ along these gargantuan curbs), the motorcycles are efficient, fast, and dangerously fun.

at the RP intersection with the east-west Rama IV Rd., the non-touristy Khlong Toei market squeezes and spreads in a zig-zagged line of dust-covered umbrellas beneath an elaborate pedestrian overpass. purchase: mango peeler knives. then walk west down Rama IV to a N-S segment of the national railline. at 4 in the afternoon, the only shade is the billboards which run adjacent, repetitive, pink, rhythmic. to the south is the exhaust-cloaked Chalerm Mahanahkon expressway, to the north is the Daong Phitak access road, and in the middle are the tracks covered in dusty scrub-brush, pink flowers, and now, my tired Teva-clad feet. such an uncomfortable but glorious inadvertent linear park of smog, advertising, late afternoon shadows, and crunchy footsteps. the tracks lead back Sukhumvit Rd + the Skytrain overpass. I am filthy and drenched but satisfied.

transportation meeting + On Nut 4.4
a brief chat with two city transportation officials has provided some insight into Bangkok’s lack of cohesive transit. similarly to Chandigarh, this city’s status as the national capitol has been more curse than blessing when it comes to planning. the Skytrain is administered by the city government, the Metro system by the federal government, the buses and roads by the feds, the waterways by a joint committee… moreover, cost and speed are often the primary dictates for route-planning, accounting for the Skytrain and Metro’s coincidence with pre-existing major thoroughfares (no need for private land acquisitions). ‘Superblocks’ are defined by large-scale arteries, but what happens within is still largely amuk; oftentimes sois are still considered to be private linescapes, disallowing their extension or reconfiguration within the superblock itself. thus you have Bangkok’s one-way dead-end alleys that lead nowhere and that serve more as linear front porches than connectors. interestingly, too, many of Bangkok’s canals did not actually precede roads, but resulted from road construction, which created trenches to one (or both) sides as earth was most-cheaply acquired from the ground immediately adjacent.

the afternoon was filled with a short but valuable trip to On Nut BTS terminus and beyond. this neighborhood is beyond the reaches of the Sukhumvit – Asok – Phrom Phong expat community and the On Nut BTS station is a lively public space where the parking lot of the On Nut covered market has been converted into an outdoor café at the mouth of the station. all it takes is 6 foodstalls and as many little tables and chairs as can fit to turn this otherwise transitory non-place into a pleasantly usable space in the evening rushour.
Bangkok port, expat territory 4.5
the Blue Elephant restaurant and cooking school stands like a bastion of three storied colonial architecture beneath a gleaming glass tower that might have had its glory days in the late 80’s. the restaurant specializes in “royal” thai cusine, which means the recipes of the royal family when it first began to entertain foreign dignitaries and thus, created a panoply of cooked dishes to accommodate the foreign palate (as traditional Thai cuisine was largely raw). 4-hours of educational cooking (and eating) later, I find myself wondering if this city isn’t like the food: full of singularly strong, un-cooperative ingredients that should all compete, but that combine to form a complex, tantalizing, whole.

the port…heard it was down and out and it seemed like an important place to see in terms of the confluence of local and global Bangkok. the port is south of the Khlong Toei market (see 4.3), along a section of the Chao Phraya that was dredged for this purpose. leaving Khlong Toei and heading east, the city assumes the anonymous air of the urban ‘remainder.’ heavy traffic dictates wide roads, which only pass through this no man’s land of mangy dogs and forgotten mom n’ pop shops, interspersed with the occasional port-related government building. the rail also runs E-W through this area, underneath the shadow of an overpass, which, like in so many cities, demarcates the true beginning of the port area. the port itself is inaccessible to non-official traffic, but the adjacent neighborhood is a mixture planned block housing for employees, a 7-11 with surrounding lively foodstalls + bus station, and an old, cramped, alley-filled neighborhood of single storey wooden homes. this might be deemed the Bangkok version of a slum, cut off from the rest of the city, and by no means up-and-coming. and yet, the alleys are lively and thus, by my standards, safe.

it is remarkable how quickly this all gives way to the well-heeled addresses of expat land; 3 blocks back under the railway and the sois begin to feed back into Sukhumvit territory, despite the distance remaining from this ritzy commercial & residential artery. soi 26 runs north and quickly transitions from clean-scrubbed strip mall land into white-light strewn sidewalks of trees, luxury business hotels, quiet residential apartments towers, and reserved Japanese restaurants. in the dark, with the recession of the city’s confusing skyline, and the allure of luminous tree branches, this feels like someone’s version of home away from home; the less commercial segments of Tokyo’s Omote-Sando came to mind (no doubt suggested by all the Japanese writing). once back on Sukhumvit it’s a quick BTS trip west back to Nana-land…

No comments: